October 6th, 2020
The Moat Hotel - ArrivalWater ran in streams of droplets that collected in pools that overflowed and dripped from the windowsills onto the stone slabs that tilted the thin trickle into the road where it joined the rushing gutter stream, bubbling up in the drain that gurgled quietly. For a long time nothing happened, save the rain coming steadily down in the sort of thick drizzle that soaks you in an instant, so that after a while you don’t really feel it any more, but the cold seeps through. Thumping music announced the arrival of a taxi which turned off the main road and bumped along the side street, water splashing across the narrow pavements and up the walls on either side. As the car slowed the driver leaned across to squint at the brass numbers that flashed with the reflection of his headlights, and shone bronze in the dull glow of a streetlamp that stood, lonely like a paragon torch, its beams cast up and down the alley which curved out of sight further down, into darkness. The music quietened as the driver found their mark and pulled the car to a stop, the engine stuttering, soft sounds from the radio. The car went quiet with a clunk, the lights cut, and again, for a while, nothing happened, the street swallowing the revs and hums until only the splashing of puddles in rain could be heard, tapping through the night. Red from the taxi’s break lights glowed on their cheeks and shone in their eyes, making them squint and turn away until it rounded the bend and was gone, the hum of the engine fading quickly, as though the curve of the street hid a curtain through which the car had softly passed on. They shared a look, alone in the quiet alleyway, and, for the first time that day, felt their sum size, the emptiness of the night stretching up above them with the walls which seemed to bend over their heads, a towering cocoon of brick and iron railings, a wall of shuttered jail cells with the dripping cobblestone gangway under foot. ‘Mike,’ said one, shivering slightly, ‘Mike, are you sure?’ He had turned to look at the door opposite where they’d stopped, and was surveying the place with a frown. Up and down the street the imposing portals loomed up from the pavement, three hard paved steps going up to the front doors of tall, narrow buildings, with row upon row of dark paned glass. The wood of the door was dark, not quite black, but a deep red brown, oiled and stained, tinged purple by the night. Two pillars, set into the stone of the door’s surrounds flanked the portal, with a large mantle overhead that jutted out imperiously. As he approached the steps, the other nervously peering over his shoulder, Mike’s eyes flicked from the door, to the street, to the windows above, where no life was making itself apparent. A large knocker gleamed against the inky wood, but just as Mike was reaching to take hold, he noticed a small recess in the door’s side, where a modern steel panel was fitted, a square button and a grill for speaking into. He hesitated then pushed the button. There was no sound. ‘Did it work?’ ‘I don’t know.’ They waited, shivering in the drizzle. ‘Try it again,’ said the other, but just as Mike moved to press the buzzer the speaker crackled into life and an efficient, but not unkind voice spoke from within. ‘Good evening, how can I help?’ Mike hesitated, were they expecting him? ‘Uh, hi, hello, sorry.’ He rubbed his forehead anxiously, feeling his neck begin to warm. ‘What are you doing,’ came the whisper from behind. ‘Is that Michael?’ He sighed, ‘Yes. Yes, it is. Hello.’ ‘Hello Michael. Please come in.’ ‘Thank you.’ An internal mechanism clicked and, with a faint rustle, the door swung open. A warm wash of light bloomed over the two who stood blinking in the sudden brightness, before stepping nervously over the threshold. Out of the gloom of the street they found themselves in a cosy wood-panelled room, empty aside from a pair of fire-like lamps on curved stands, one to each side, and a row of large black iron hooks attached to a bracket on the opposite wall. Above them the ceiling stretched up out of sight, the circle of light from each lamp stark against the shadows beyond. From somewhere hidden a voice spoke, the same warm, commanding tone from the door. ‘Come in. Leave your coats and bags here.’ The two shared a look, then complied. The door swung shut with a soft thump behind them as they slipped off their backpacks and jackets, hanging them up and enjoying the feeling of the weight lifted from their shoulders, the warmth of the building already humming though them, rooting out the damp of the grey streets, the thought of which had already slipped from their minds. Mike jumped and nearly swore as the rack of hooks suddenly flew upwards, their jackets and bags sailing up into the shadows. ‘What the—,’ began the other, but even as the two stood, staring gormlessly up in surprise, a faint whirring noise from deep beyond the walls around them made them look down, at each other, and in their faces they saw themselves reflected, equal masks of confusion and excitement, the knowledge they had come this far, they have been through enough, and now their reward was strangeness and intrigue. A click, and the wall before them split down the centre, each half swinging outwards to reveal a long, ornately decorated hallway with a rich red carpet. The two gasped with surprise and Mike felt the impulse to grab his friend by the hand, with fear or exhilaration he didn’t know, but the energy of the place was beginning to fuel his heart, which he felt pulsing harder under his thumb. He realised with some surprise that he felt not only his heartbeat but the pulse of another, as he became aware of the other’s hand in his, fingertips pressing tightly against his knuckle’s backs.
©2007-2021 Benedict Esdale