Petra Whiteley

A Season in L'Amiral

Rhythm of summer underscored by the indigo nights by the Seine taps on the rusty locked doors of memory when the first waft of the scorching spell slinks through the open windows. Today is just such a day although the skin the hungry rays embrace is not as young as it was then. My brief engagement in a Parisian hotel was just a speck of time in my restless existence, and I will remember it here as it happened.
  That year, the sun lazily stretched golden on the cobble stones and the aroma of strong black coffee was seeping through the wall of the shivering air and mixed with the sweat of the bodies pushing in a throng on the sidewalks, hands held, eyes gazing into the windows with the only intention to giggle and tease. All these were the insignia of the season pressed into my mind without the recourse to erasure.
  Our hotel was heaving with guests, although the appliances were malfunctioning moodily, the building in disrepair; the furniture bruised by its endless brush with swift, heavy, urgent needs of its variously hosted bodies.
Our manager was shouted at every five minutes by the heat irritated people – their indignation coming at him left and right; high staccato voices, fingers and the soaring pitch stabbing the air as much as long, elaborate complaints set in deep booming relentless beat filling the foyer.
  Those unhappy tourists were never patient enough to be taken to his office from the gloom infested space. The walls were unevenly covered with burgundy wallpaper with its torn, flattened rose patterns, the creaking swinging doors, and the ammonia odour with the sweet smell of the disinfectant from the adjacent toilets drifting in; the bad reproductions of the Louvre’s masterpieces in their cheap frames were unwelcoming to say the least. It was the office that breathed the meaning of freshness and luxury. And maybe it was just as well he never took them there. They’d take one measure of that room and the injustice of it all, then pack their suitcases and make do even with a dirty hostel.
  The boss took it with a calm, unreadable face, suspended in meditation like a great Greek stoic philosopher. Then from his pocket he unfolded impeccable father act, a very old fashioned gold watch on a chain, soothing, elegant poise and perfect intonation and unleashed it into the startled faces till they retreated. With a trace of a smile the cunning director, the impromptu Dr. Freud, finished his snake charming routine, and the hypnotised prey was thus defeated – till something else went wrong and they came back only to repeat the scene in such regulars intervals you could set the hardboiled eggs timer by it.
  With the same regularity he winked at me as I was acting out the work of my trade – sorting letters, picking up the receiver and dropping it down, filling ledgers and pushing papers in general behind the haggard, mahogany replica of the reception desk. Yes, I was in on what that gesture heralded.
  When the doors closed and the place grew momentarily quiet, he tiptoed from his office and sneaked upon me like an apparition of Nemesis. Every time he caught me unawares he burst out laughing in a naughty boy manner. It was a cue for me to act as if he performed a bona fide illusionist trick. He had to have an audience for his slipping from one personae to another. Then he took my hand and led me to his citadel. Why did I feel like my hand became a leash he pulled? He never was a great lover, but his act had to be admired by grateful audience. His hypnoses on me worked only partially, a part of me remained watchful, my attention sharpened, scanning.
  I have had enough time to take all the details of that plush room and its nooks and crannies. It wasn’t long now till the key to the room #57 was mine with what he had amassed there. It was Freedom waiting for me to take it – the sheltered treasure in the beast’s castle. What was a little humouring in turn for that? He, of course, didn’t see this coming. To him I must have been just a naive, young girl who was there to assuage the need that pounded his flesh hungrily.
  Five days...passed slowly. I counted the angels on the sideline and the devils in the flames. They were my sheep sending me from threshold of sleep to indolent awakening. That final day I held the key in my palms as I snatched it from its hiding place that was revealed to me. Who was the magus now?
  The night came; I silently walked up the windy staircase. If I could I would wish that night away. It was far too easy to reach the secret chamber unseen and undisturbed and it should have been my warning. The key fitted perfectly as it turned.
  The shabby room greeted me like a fist with its assault of disturbed layers of dust. I had to suppress the need to cough. I had brought my hand back to my face because a wave of a terrible stench came at me as I entered the room. Trying to ignore it, I looked for the money that my boss conjured when he was playing another of his performance tricks on the banks with his motley crew of weird friends. The hotel was a slow-turn Laundromat and another stage for him.
  I looked everywhere and was about to abandon the search, when the door opened wide and with it the cops in their full glory infested the room faster than roaches. There was no escape and I found myself captured and immobilised as I looked in horror – it wasn’t the theft I so carefully – or recklessly – planned I was done for, it was the dead body of my boss’s accomplice in the bath tub.
  It took me five years to try to prove my innocence. I’ve lost the endless appeals and battles in the cold draft of court and slowly resigned myself to the rot in the hole. Finally, the fortune found me with her mighty eye and with her long arm she turned the body of evidence of my ex-lover’s guilt, exculpating me of mine. I walked out free and the freedom I found tasted divine.
  Although the permanent scar in the fabric of my memory still itches at times; I cannot say the time in prison didn’t teach me anything. Next time a venture came my way, I just never got caught.

Petra Whiteley © 2009