Friday, 26 October 2012

Journey IX – Hotel Gomorrah

I sit at the vast picture window that fills the west wall of the room in a heavy towelling gown in a recliner. I watch the breeze flow through the flowering trees a couple of storeys below and a flock of blue birds twitter and whirl together among the highest branches. It’s very peaceful here. I sip my coffee and try to think. In the next room Shamim is moving about – I can hear her humming to herself, probably getting dressed after her shower. I swivel round in the chair and then get up and look at the pictures on the walls. They seem to be reproductions but at least someone here has a modicum of taste. I look about the room a bit more, or the suite I should say. It reminds me of those hotels you see in American cop shows – rather too much chrome and vinyl for my liking but it’s comfortable nevertheless, with a king-size bed and thick carpets and a wide, flat-screen TV, should we want it. I flick through and find an apparently infinite selection of old movies, shopping channels and some quite heavy pornography, which I swiftly change in case she comes in. On the table there is a bowl of perfect peaches and mangoes, and a plastic bucket with melted ice and the empty champagne bottle we finished off last night. Breakfast comes with room service. I order eggs Benedict with smoked salmon rather than ham in a vain attempt to avoid corrupting Shamim any further. I call through to find out what she wants and she appears in a white linen gown, rubbing her head with a towel and looks at the menu. She orders waffles and syrup with bacon, and some orange juice. After the girl has taken our order and gone I make a light hearted comment about the bacon but she just smiles and shrugs and goes back to the bathroom.

The events of the day before are still a bit of a blur. There were high, narrow slit windows in the armoured van so we could see the streets as we careered along, horns blaring and pedestrians scattering. The main streets in fact looked increasingly like a lot of city shopping streets I’d seen in the UK, with bland-looking chain stores and banks and cafes still closed and barred because it was so early. There were CCTV cameras on almost every post. Any direct sunlight was excluded by the many storeys of what I assumed must be offices above. Everything was wet and beginning to steam. Workers in orange overalls with brooms and barrows watched us pass and young men and women in smart outfits trotted along the pavements, bag or brief case in one hand, styrofoam cup in the other. Unlikely looking trees in a worrying shade of green stood at odd angles in holes in the pavement, and despite the efforts of the men in orange, litter was everywhere.

Then we entered what you might call the business district and the light got even dimmer because of the height of the buildings around us. The frontages were all marble and steel and glass and the suits were that bit sharper. Our transport slowed down and they shut the horn off, out of respect for the money I suppose. I looked back in at the others. We were all pressed to the windows, shocked and impressed at what we were seeing here. Muriel alone was sitting hunched on the floor with a terrified look on her face. Our eyes met and she gave me a hopeless stare. I suppose we were all too aware of the horrific damage done to those we’d seen in the shanties and of what could happen to us when we got to wherever we were going. I caught Shamim's eye but there was no warmth there. There were no feelings to spare. I went and peered out the window again, just as we turned sharp left and entered what seemed like an underground car park. At any rate there wasn’t enough light to see anything through the tinted and crazed glass except the fluorescent tubes in the ceiling. We all turned and squatted down and looked at each other. Shamim came over and nestled against me. We looked across at her parents who were in much the same pose.
‘Take care of her won’t you’ said her father. ‘I have to look after this one.’ He kissed the top of his wife’s head.
Nicky looked bereft at us for a moment but then huddled down with Muriel, and took her tiny form in her arms. Mike and Agnes got as comfortable as they could.
Then the doors were opened and the two police bundled us out – not roughly, but not politely either. They directed us with the barrels of their guns toward a door, which opened to reveal a badly lit concrete stairwell. We all went up in our pairs as if chained together. I heard Muriel quietly weeping and Nicky trying to comfort her. We knew the worst was coming. Revolting fluids leaked out from under doors as we passed. There were screams and pleadings coming from somewhere not far away, and the smell of blood and urine. Another policemen surprised in an open doorway held a chain with some dark stuff matted among the links. We carried on up, I don’t know how many floors. I did notice however, that as we rose the air became less oppressive and the concrete less stained. Then the guardrails turned from wrought iron to steel and there were frosted glass windows letting in some daylight. Finally we came to a door that opened into a plushly carpeted, softly lit hallway with numbered doors. It was exactly like a hotel and we all, I think, relaxed a little, although still on edge, obviously.
Without a word a door was opened onto a bright, pleasantly furnished room and Mike and Agnes were gently but firmly made to enter and the door closed behind them. Then it was Mr and Mrs Sadeghi’s turn and I could see Shamim wanted to go with them but the policeman wouldn’t let her. Mr Sadeghi nodded and said it would be alright and then looked at me as if to say “It had better be.” I nodded back as resolutely as I could. The policeman gave Shamim and her parents time to hug but then shut them in their room. Shamim and I got the next room together and we didn’t have time to see what they did with Nicky and Muriel. Shamim just sank to the floor against the door and burst into tears. I sat with her but there was no place for me in her feelings. I had little to offer her myself.

So that was how came to share a bed for the first time. Nothing happened of course, how could it? She was a good Muslim girl and besides, we were terrified. We slept until early evening I guess it must have been. That was when I got up and pulled back the curtains, expecting to see a vision of hell from above but instead found a forest. I wandered about and found the bathroom and had a shower. Then I noticed the ice bucket on the table with a bottle of champagne in it and a card propped up against it, which said “With Compliments” and gave the number to ring for room service. There was a menu there too and I sat down and looked at it. It was all totally unbelievable.
A few hours later, when Shamim began to stir I rang and asked for some coffee for us and it arrived almost immediately – the waiter accompanied by a cop with a gun who waited outside. The little man smiled obsequiously. I’d never been in a hotel with room service before, and I wasn’t good at dealing with servants. I smiled at him as warmly as I could and wondered if he expected a tip, but we had nothing to give him anyway so that was out.
I woke Shamim with a kiss and showed her the coffee. She still looked terribly worried, as one would expect but accepted my solicitations graciously and gave me a kiss in return.

We spent the evening sitting around drinking the champagne. I offered to get her something else but she said no this will do fine, and drank from the bottle. I noticed the alcohol did actually work in the normal way here and we both felt quite tipsy quite quickly. We perused the menu and I phoned down for some prawns in garlic and some bread and salad. Again it arrived very quickly and was very good. I wanted to get some more champagne but it didn’t seem like a good plan under the circumstances. It was all I could do to not throw myself at her when I was sober and this wasn’t the time nor the place. (Actually, I thought, this is exactly the place. It’s what this place was designed for.) Then she said she needed to get clean and I told her where the bathroom was and she went through and squealed with delight at the size of the bath. (It really doesn’t take much to cheer women up does it.) While she was in there doing that I got in some orange juice to dilute the bubbly and some dark chocolate which I knew she’d like. Then I blindfolded myself and very carefully carried her drink and the chocolates through.
‘I thought this might cheer you up’ I said, kneeling by the tub. She laughed and wrenched the blindfold off and there she was, covered in bubbles and with her hair tied back, like some decadent fifties movie star, sipping her drink and nibbling a square of chocolate. I sat down beside the bath, looking at her and trailing my hand in the water. Then I felt her move her leg a little, so that my fingers found her toes and she raised her eyebrows at me. I ran my fingers along to her ankles and massaged her feet. She put her head back and sighed.

So when I talk about corrupting her it was the alcohol I was referring to, and possibly the bacon. We lay together on the bed that night, both of us severely aroused to be sure but unprepared to do anything about it. She rapped on the wall adjoining her parent’s room for a while but got no response. We called for room service to ask about them, but got nothing more than ‘They are being well looked after’, implying that they were in much the same situation as we were. Shamim asked when we’d see them and the policeman pulled the waiter out and said ‘All in good time miss.’
Shamim went back to the bed and lay down. I went to the cupboard and found a nightgown for her but she wanted to stay in her dressing gown, and she pulled it tight around her. I kissed her on the head but said no more and went to sit in the recliner and look out at the night, and that’s how we woke up next morning.

We had to wait another two days after that for anything more to happen, We were by turns bored and decadent, horny and frustrated and terrified for what might be happening to the others (and to us next by implication.) The horniness was almost perfectly balanced by the anxiety. I said I understood, what with her culture and so on and she laughed at me and asked if I really believed Muslim girls were always innocent and chaste. I didn’t know what to say. I suppose I had been assuming that and felt suddenly very silly. ‘But there’s still your parents...’
‘Yes’ she said sadly, as if wishing I hadn’t reminded her although I know she hadn’t forgotten.
‘Although’ I add, trying to restore the mood, ‘if we were travelling with my parents I think I’d have felt even more uncomfortable.’
She smiles and asks ‘What are they like?’ and I give her a brief account but don’t really want to talk about them. Then I begin to talk about my sisters and where I grew up and before I know it all the crap about my time faffing about and not knowing what to do comes spilling out.
When I’m done she looks at me appraisingly, nodding and smiling gently. I wait for the verdict. She comes over, puts her hand behind my head and kisses me. ‘You are a good man’ she says. ‘You try. I admire that. You don’t let them beat you.’ and once again I am reminded of Sophie and how she used to re-interpret me to myself and I can’t believe what lovely women there are in the world. I used to think maybe Sophie was a bit soft in the head where I was concerned, but here it is again – respect and understanding. I decide to tell her about Sophie there and then, sitting together on the bed, holding hands, and she listens and nods and understands and then she tells me about Mica, her boyfriend in Muswell Hill and how much she misses him. And although we hold each other and kiss, still we don’t make love. We know we can’t do that.

On the third morning there is a knock on the door. We’re both in bed in our dressing gowns watching something terrible on the TV. I go to the door and get given an envelope. The bearer stands there and waits as I open it. Shamim looks over my shoulder at it. ‘What is it?’ she says.
‘Seems to be an invitation’ I say. ‘A Mr Rit Large, whoever he is, requests the pleasure of our company... And there’s a room number. Where is this?’ I ask the porter.
‘You will be escorted to the penthouse’ he says. ‘Shall I inform Mr Large of your intention to attend?’
‘Do we have a choice?’ asks Shamim
‘Of course madam. There is always a choice.’
‘Will my parents be there?’
‘If you mean Mr and Mrs Sadeghi? Absolutely they will be there. All your friends will be there – unless they refuse of course.’ We nod and say we’ll be there.
‘Excellent’ he says and backs out, bowing slightly. I shut the door on him. Shamim looks at me with raised eyebrows, and a hopeful expression on her face.
‘I have nothing to wear’ she says.

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A life backwards

It's in the nature of blogs of course that you come across the latest postings first (or you find yourself in the middle.) Normally it doesn't matter but if you want to read my novel in order, the first installment is as you'd expect, the oldest posting.
Thanks for your patience.