The Hotel Alpha was in flames. Fire had broken out in a top-floor room and was ripping through the place, threatening to gut the building I had devoted myself to for twenty years. Yet there I was, a quarter of a mile away, gliding along in the Mercedes, oblivious.
It was a warm evening in the summer of 1984 and I had just ferried a guest to Heathrow Airport. As I swung off the Westway, heading back towards the hotel, people were everywhere: gathering outside the Globe pub, dawdling and laughing at zebra crossings until I honked jokingly at them to get a move on. I never spent much time outside myself, but I could see why this sort of weather was so popular. 1here was the delicious feeling in the air of a long, luxuriant evening still to unfold. It would have been impossible to believe that, not five minutes later, I would be facing the worst catastrophe of my career.
As soon as I pulled up and saw that something was wrong – a melee of people in the forecourt, some fleeing, some trying to peer inside – a part of me felt as if I had known for twenty years that this moment would come.
Not that I could have anticipated the fire, of course: just that, in some superstitious chamber of my brain whose existence I barely acknowledged, there had always been the fear that the paradise of the Alpha could not last forever. It was a similar impulse to the one which obliged me to imagine the loss of my wife Pattie or my children, a way of somehow safeguarding against the worst by picturing it. The Alpha was only a building, of course; yet it had, from the moment I had arrived here twenty years ago, come to feel like a blood relative. If I were away for any length of time, I would begin to have the most absurd fantasies that it might have disappeared; that it would prove to have been a vision, a dreamed world.
Perhaps that is why, amid the panic which began to flood into my limbs as I leapt from the car, there was also a vein of cool determination.
I dashed into the building through the mahogany doors I waxed and burnished each week, across the chequerboard floor I sometimes got onto my hands and knees to scrub − to the amusement of the cleaning ladies – as I could not bear to see it marked or muddied. I stood by my reception desk and looked up at the balconies running all round the hotel, stacked one on top of another like the layers of a cake. The top balcony was already obscured by a cloud of black smoke, and people were stampeding down the staircase. Our antiquated smoke alarms were rattling, and a competing swell of voices rose in horror or a sort of guilty fascination.
At this time, many rooms would be unoccupied, the guests dispersed around London’s countless night haunts. But not everyone would have escaped from the top floor, I knew. I fought my way against the tide of people moving towards the doors and round those who were standing and gawping up at the thickening cloud. Across the atrium to the back stairs I went. The heat and the screaming and the panic were all on the other side of the wall, but I could feel it all like pinpricks on my skin as I leapt up the stairs two at a time. At the final bend, the gateway to the top floor, I ran into Howard York.
This was a man who was credited with being able to make anything happen. For these twenty years he had been one of the crucial figures in my life and – as it sometimes felt – the life of London itself. He had bought the Alpha as a very young man and conjured up, from its neglected brickwork and empty space, the most notorious hotel in the city. People came to him, and to the hotel, for solutions to their problems; for things they could not get elsewhere. When he was in the room, there was a sense that anything was possible. Conversations stalled as he walked by; onlookers nudged each other; reality braced itself to bend into whatever shape took his fancy.
But now there was no trace of the magician or the raconteur of a thousand nights in the bar, the supreme salesman and romantic, all the glittering versions of Howard we were so used to. Now he looked like a lost boy. There were tears in his eyes, and his face was as red as raw meat. He had no shirt on. He grabbed my wrist, his grip tight with a desperation which might tip into violence.
‘Room 77, Graham,’ he spluttered, breaking out into a cough, ‘77, 77.’
One of us had to fight through the smoke and try to stop what was already a calamity from becoming a tragedy. One of us or both of us. Or we could both stay where we were and trust that Howard’s luck would hold once more.
It had held pretty well so far. But then, in Howard’s own opinion, luck was not a whimsical force which flitted in and out of lives. It was a commodity: something you could make or buy. This was one of the first things I learned about him.
We were both in our mid-twenties when we met, but unlike him I did not know quite what I was doing with myself, and the question was becoming rather urgent.
I had gone into the army under the influence – I should more accurately say the orders – of my father, himself a brigadier. I was well suited to military service, he thought, in that I respected authority and kept my shoes very clean. He had overlooked that I was ill suited to it in other ways: namely that I loathed the cold, could not run quickly, could not pitch a tent, hated mud, did not care to sleep in dormitories, and above all did not wish to kill other men.
When I put all this to my father, he eventually allowed me to leave the forces, but he never spoke to me again. I would have to fend for myself, and for my wife Pattie. At first I greeted this prospect with a certain bravado, but this was beginning to flake away after a couple of years of poorly paid and unreliable work.
I had been a tailor’s assistant, an ‘apprentice barber’, which meant sweeping hair off floors, and, when I was fortunate enough, a silver-service waiter at the Grosvenor House hotel and the Ritz. In these places I felt something like a sense of belonging, surrounded by the heavy wood and marble, chandeliers and vases and telephones, the mock-classical bas-reliefs. Grand hotels were fussy and old-fashioned in a way I recognized I was myself. But the work they offered was sporadic. We were, as they say, scraping by.
Pattie never complained about our dingy flat or the fact we had ham and oven chips for dinner every night. In a way, her patience made matters worse. It was shaming to see her poring over the classifieds section of the Evening Standard on my behalf, or hear her talking about getting a loan and going to secretarial college. When she came across the ad which was to change my life, I was almost too grumpy to hear her out.
‘What about this one? Listen. Outstanding head concierge wanted … ’
‘I am hardly “outstanding”, am I? And I’ve never worked as a concierge. I don’t even really know what—’
‘Shush! Wanted for London’s best hotel,’ she went on. ‘No experience – there you go! No experience necessary. Efficiency and integrity important, as well as a sense of adventure.’
‘I’m efficient, I suppose. But I wouldn’t say I had a sense of adventure.’
‘Oh, I’m sure you can get one,’ said Pattie. ‘Do you want me to write you a letter or will you do it?’
‘Where is it? Which hotel?’
Pattie laughed. ‘Well, this is the funniest bit. NB Hotel does not exist yet.’
I had allowed my mind to play for a moment with the image of myself, smartly attired, at the front desk of the Dorchester; but at this final sentence I felt the picture dissolve. ‘It must be some sort of joke,’ I said, ‘and I’m damned if I’m going to mess about with the typewriter to apply for something which … ’
‘Well, this is even odder!’ she said, continuing to pay my moodiness the scant regard it deserved. ‘You don’t even have to apply. It says: Interested parties to report to Howard York, 11 a.m., May 1st.’
‘It’ll be an April Fool or something,’ I muttered.
‘April Fool’s day is in April, you silly man. And then there’s an address: Hotel Alpha, Curzon Mews, off Euston Road, N1.’
I recognized the address and realized that the new hotel must be the establishment once known as the Royal. It had been a magnificent railway hotel in Victorian times, but endured a miserable retirement as an emergency sanatorium and a government records office, finally closing altogether in the fifties. I had heard about it from the one friend I made in the military, a retired colonel who had been sequestered there for several weeks after getting typhoid in India. He had described the magnificence of the interior: a huge central atrium designed for horse-drawn carriages, the balconies, the ornate and now neglected rooms. He had mentioned the eeriness of it, this place that had once teemed with extravagant life and was now full of illness and death. I had walked past the unloved building on a foggy day a few years ago and wondered briefly how long it would stand there before someone demolished it. But now, quite the opposite had happened. Now there was to be a new hotel, the Hotel Alpha.
‘Well, perhaps I’ll think about it,’ I mumbled.
The day went on as normal after that: I went out to buy ham, we listened to the radio and cooperated on The Times’ crossword. The first of May approached and I pretended not to be thinking about it; but the more I did so, the more the words ‘Hotel Alpha’ seemed to swim around in my head.
On the eve of the interview, Pattie ironed my suit and chose a tie for me, and we rehearsed possible interview questions.
‘What do you think are your best qualities?’
‘I … well, modesty forbids me to, er … ’
‘No it doesn’t,’ she scolded me. ‘Don’t you dare be modest tomorrow.’
‘Very well,’ I sighed. ‘I am punctual and reliable, have never missed a day of work, have an excellent memory … ’
‘And you’re the loveliest man I know,’ Pattie finished for me. ‘Don’t forget to mention that. Now, what are your hobbies and leisure interests?’
‘I enjoy crosswords and am a keen fan of rugby.’
‘That’s not good enough either,’ she said. ‘You need to stand out. Pretend you’re into morris dancing or something.’
‘Oh God, what’s the use? I may as well not turn up. There are bound to be …’
Pattie laid a finger on my lips. She had a flower in her hair, and there were ink marks on her fingers.
‘You will be marvellous,’ she said, ‘and if you don’t get the job, nobody’s going to die, are they?’
I slept poorly, and– not knowing what else to do with myself – got the bus to the hotel first thing in the morning, arriving almost two hours before the advertised time. The hotel’s massive, weather-beaten brickwork was as I remembered it, but new windows had been fitted, and an imposing pair of mahogany doors bore a silver ‘A’ rendered in art deco style. I gazed up at the cedars which framed the forecourt. They had the advantage of me: they had been here many generations already, seemed to know how things would turn out. Behind those doors, the trees seemed to say, exciting things are about to happen. You might be a part of them, or they might just as easily go on without you. A queue began to form in the hour or so before midday, and the longer it became, the more my spirits flagged. The great majority of the forty or fifty men communicated youth and ease. Although I was only twenty-five myself, I felt like a relic with my case and my wartime hairstyle. I was not like these people who blew out cigarette smoke with an insouciance modelled on pop stars and chuckled slyly at each other’s remarks. They would know the bars to direct guests to, or the shops to be seen at on Carnaby Street. They, not I, were what this establishment would need.
As I struggled to suppress these pessimistic impressions, my attention was drawn to a commotion. A man in a tatty old overcoat had wandered into the traffic, whisky bottle in hand. He hesitated for a moment, arm uplifted as if to conduct some invisible orchestra, and then slumped in the middle of the road, forcing cars to swerve round him with a fusillade of honks. A bus gave a low bellow like an animal whose lair had been invaded. I glanced about. A few of my fellow interviewees were watching curiously, even with amusement; others were fussing with their hair or checking wristwatches. Nobody seemed to be concerned for the fellow who now lay there motionless. Without stopping to consider it, I dropped my case and darted into the road.
‘Are you … would you like some help?’ I asked.
‘Very kind,’ he said in a voice quite as composed as my own. ‘Get me to the pavement, will you?’
I reached out an arm and helped him to his feet, then escorted him to the kerb.
‘Brave of you, coming into the road like that,’ said the stranger.
‘I thought they would probably stop short of actually running me over.’
‘Quite right.’ He fixed me suddenly with a look of wily appraisal. ‘Cars don’t want to run you over. Snakes don’t want to bite you. Planes don’t want you to miss them. Do you know what I mean?’
I said that I did, though in truth I thought he might well be as mad as a dog.
Then the stranger did something which I would never forget. He shrugged off his overcoat to reveal a smoking jacket in purple crushed velvet, then reached up and removed his ratty, straggling hair in one grab. Beneath the wig was a raffishly parted mop and I was suddenly looking at a man of around my own age.
‘I’m Howard York,’ he said. ‘You were the only person to help, there. Out of all these.’ He gestured at the line of strangers, many of whom were now looking on in bemusement. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Graham Adam, Mr York.’
‘You’re hired, Graham Adam,’ he said.
I lost my speech for a second; but only a second. ‘Are you sure, sir?’
‘Not sir,’ he said, ‘Howard. And yes, I am. Go inside. Find a lady with very long brown hair. That’s my wife, Sarah-Jane. I’ll explain to these other chaps that their interview has already taken place.’
I passed the queue of candidates in a daze and found the young lady he mentioned; she was waiting in the atrium with a raised-eyebrows sort of smile on her face.
‘Welcome,’ she said with a Yorkshire inflection, ‘and well done. He insisted on doing it this way, the silly fool.’
She took my arm –I was too befuddled to consider it rather forward of her as I might otherwise have done – and began to show me round the hotel. I took in, as if dreaming them, the individually appointed suites, the vast cellars with a cache of half-century-old wines, the stately smoking room. We discussed wages, though I would have signed the forms placed in front of me even if they had proposed to pay me in biscuits.
Released at last from these people, if not from the spell they had cast on me, I wandered westwards and called Pattie from a phone box opposite the green bulge of the Planetarium. I went into a pub, ordered a whisky, and on impulse bought a round for twenty strangers. In Regent’s Park I finally succumbed to my emotions and did a little dance behind a statue, perhaps observed – from the windows of white mansions – by rich people who thought I had gone out of my mind.
My first duty was to send out invitations to the party for the grand opening of the Alpha. The guest list ran to hundreds of people, some of the names so famous that even I had heard of them. We were also taking our first room bookings. Howard York approached this in a very odd manner. He instructed me that if anyone phoned for a room, I was to say that we were booked solid for the first three weeks, but they should call back later that evening in case something had become available. It was not so much that I minded telling a white lie – Howard was my boss, and I would do whatever he asked – but that it seemed extraordinarily rash. Why would a brand-new establishment decline business like this? Might I find myself out of a job in six weeks?
Almost everyone did indeed call again, though, and when – this time – a room was miraculously found for them, they sounded so grateful and relieved that I almost believed in the lie. Word got around that it was already nearly impossible to book a room at the Alpha. Enquiries doubled and trebled, the Bakelite telephone on my desk was ringing every other minute, and the fiction of the hotel’s unstoppable popularity was quickly willed into fact.
The party worked in much the same way. Though many luminaries had been asked to attend, plenty more went uninvited, the distinction between the two groups being quite arbitrary but inevitably coming to seem meaningful to those involved. Soon those in the latter group began making strenuous attempts to get themselves an invitation, and all the more so when a couple of fashionable magazines carried gossipy articles speculating upon who had, and had not, ‘made the list’. Howard, I was already realizing, had something of a gift for making things appear in print which he wished to be seen as accepted facts. At the same time there was this mischief, this relish for chaos, about him: he might spend half a day engineering a brief appearance by Mary Quant, but he also invited complete strangers, including a man whose dog ran up and tried to bite him on the Euston Road. On the day before the party, the hotel’s cellars were equipped to cater for the court of King Solomon himself, but it had ceased to be clear whether we were expecting fifty people or five thousand. Pattie was away from London visiting friends, and so I spent the whole day helping to get things ready.
‘How long do you think it will last?’ I asked Sarah-Jane, watching in concern as she reached on tiptoe from a stool to drape an arch of fairy lights above the reception desk. ‘And would you like a hand with that?’
She turned, her face a little flushed, and hung the string of lights round her neck to amuse me. ‘Perhaps I’ll just wear them like this instead. As for how long it will last − I would expect the unexpected.’
‘I suppose I’m a bit of a stick-in-the-mud,’ I said, ‘but I prefer to expect the expected.’
Sarah-Jane’s face lit up with a laugh. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘it might be all over by midnight, but it might go on till one o’clock, or – good God – even two, Graham. We’ll pay you overtime, of course.’
‘It isn’t a matter of wages at all. I just like to be prepared.’
But within an hour of the mahogany doors being flung open and the first inward surge of arrivals, it was clear that this was not an event one could be prepared for. The atrium throbbed with the energy of bodies; around the balconies went the echo of laughter, sometimes shrill and demonstrative as if designed to show the laugher’s cleverness, at other times almost wild. Champagne corks came out like shots from a popgun. I went down to the cellars many times for fresh supplies of liquor; I set down plates of salmon and cream cheese and prawn cocktails and whisked away the remains only moments later. The Hotel Alpha was full of noisy joy: the building was like a person returning to company after a long period of sickness.
The slice of the heavens visible through the skylight went from heavy purple to an ambiguous lilac and finally a pale blue-white, and still no end to this party was in sight. People were in any number of the bedrooms; as I stood on the top balcony I could hear raucous song from the end of the corridor, and in a room closer at hand a young couple was collaborating on something rather different. Everyone in the building but me was under the influence of alcohol or some other drug, I realized. Further singing and shouting floated up from the atrium, like noise from a wireless far away. Some people, in their lurid party clothes, lay across the chessboard floor as if they had crash-landed there; others wandered like wobbling insects from one area to another. In the middle of it all I could see Howard unveiling one of his party pieces: balancing a chair on his forehead. His arms shot out to his sides for balance, but from where I stood it seemed as if he was gesturing to his audience Look at me! I glanced up at the skylight again and it was suddenly difficult to believe that anything of substance existed beyond these brick walls.
At nine in the morning I went home. 1he air outside was cold and thin and there was a dreamlike quality to the people I saw going to their places of work; even to the heaviness of my own body in its unchanged clothes. I let myself in, slept for a couple of hours, bathed and headed straight back to the Alpha, having telephoned Pattie at her friends’.
‘How was the party?’
‘It was … well, it is still going on, as a matter of fact.’
‘Golly,’ said Pattie. ‘I hope they know what they’re doing, these people.’
I could not reassure her on that score. As I got off the bus and strode along Euston Road, past people who glanced indifferently at the grin which had stolen across my face, I had no way of knowing whether the Alpha would be continuing its rise to instant notoriety. For all I knew, police might have thrown everyone out; the place might have reverted to its former ghostly state, even vanished altogether. I need not have worried, though. The doors with that angular ‘A’ were as marvellously solid as ever, and behind them, bedlam was at an advanced stage. Howard and Sarah-Jane, loosely flanked by other couples, were dancing the Lindy Hop to the beat of a jazz quartet in ragged tuxedos who had appeared from somewhere. There was still a drink in everyone’s hand; the balconies, the bar, the smoking room still thrummed with activity. The police had come earlier in the night and been sent away again. Sarah-Jane had opened the door, naked other than her socks, to a nervous young constable.
‘Shouldn’t you put something on, madam?’ he had suggested.
‘We’ve got music on,’ said Sarah-Jane, putting out an arm to usher in the policeman, who stayed for a couple of drinks before going meekly on his way.
There were no clocks on display, and the only sight of sky was from that glass panel: not just the time but the very idea of time seemed to disappear. The hourly boundaries collapsed like the timbers of a roof we were all falling through. It was not until the second midnight that the party began to break up, addled guests making their way out onto the Euston Road, blinking and staring as if they had been trapped in a cave for weeks. Each one was seen off with a slap on the back and a merry word of farewell by the still buoyant Howard, including the man with the dog, invited on a whim, who had ended up staying for seventeen hours.
By this time I had begun the job of cleaning up, going round the balconies and entering room after room with a certain trepidation. I gathered up cans and bottles and somewhat less recognizable items which I held by the edges, putting everything in a black bag which got heavier and heavier on my shoulder, as if I were Father Christmas in reverse. Despite the mess, no damage had been done, I was relieved to see: already I felt for the place as if I owned it myself. As I made my way down to the atrium, I passed Howard and Sarah-Jane. They were lying in the very middle of the marble floor, gazing all the way up to the skylight and sharing a cigarette. Thinking me out of earshot – or perhaps not caring – Sarah-Jane propped herself up on an elbow and said: ‘We’ve fallen on our feet with that one!’
They were talking about me, I realized, feeling my ears turn red.
‘He’s the business,’ Howard agreed, ‘but you make your own luck, Captain. Captain is your nickname from now on.’
‘Because I have decided it,’ he said with mock grandeur. I glanced back, and then away again as he leaned in to kiss her on the nose. She rested her head on his shoulder and the two of them lay there, the great amphitheatre of the Alpha around and above them. The silence which had fallen felt temporary. The feeling I had experienced these past couple of days – of being the lucky invitee at a party which should have been beyond my aspirations – was one I never really lost in the years that followed. At least, not for a very long time.
There was no longer any doubt in my mind that Howard would find guests to fill the hotel. What we would do with them was a different matter. He knew how to build up a business and throw a party, all right, but he had very little idea about running a hotel. That was to be my job.
At least, it seemed to be. My job title – ‘concierge’ – was rather vague: Howard had adopted it, like ‘bellboy’, from the American thrillers which had tempted him to put his family fortune into hotels in the first place. The position would be what I made it. And so I made it a considerable one.
I ran the front desk, and what a desk it was: a great slab of Dutch walnut which felt almost as big as the original tree must have been. On the desk was the Bakelite telephone, an oversized ledger with creamy white pages and a fountain pen, and a till. In the desk’s many drawers I kept useful things: foreign phrase books, train timetables, leaflets for local attractions and so on. When the phone piped up, I took the reservation and wrote the name in the ledger, which was actually an artist’s pad designed for sketching. Pattie and I had divided each double page carefully into 77 squares, so I would always have a plan of who was where. At nine o’clock on the fifteenth of May, 1963, I checked in the first guest with a set of rules I had plucked from thin air, but which became our gospel.
‘Breakfast is from six until ten. There is a games room and a smoking room, though of course you may smoke in your room as well. For a restaurant reservation … ’
The room keys, hung on a rack, were all attached to A-shaped wooden fobs which Howard had commissioned and shipped at breathtaking expense from Switzerland. I loved to reach one down and put it in a guest’s hand; to take their cash and ring it up in the till, or file the cheque carefully in a drawer, ready to be taken to Lloyds Bank on the Friday.I had command of the hotel’s dozen staff; I wore a smart grey suit and people called me ‘Mr Adam’. Pattie noted that I had taken to whistling as I left the house.
‘I’ve never known you so happy, Graham!’
It was truer than she knew. What I had found was something I had sought all my life without being aware of it: a thing I was really good at,a place where I was in command. Howard and Sarah-Jane were in charge, of course, but I spoke to them on what seemed like an equal footing. When Howard suggested that breakfast be moved forward to seven – ‘it’s easier on the chefs, and I don’t trust people who are dressed at six in the morning’ – I said as a compromise that we ought to serve guests in their rooms at the earlier time, but begin restaurant service at seven.
‘I suppose,’ said Howard. ‘At least in their rooms they don’t need to have their clothes on.’ And he laughed, as usual, at my face, which rarely knew what to do with remarks of that kind.
It was as if I were in charge of a giant train set, like the one I had as a boy before my father – in one of his rages – threw it all on the bonfire. The more loops and twists I built for myself, the more ingenious I became at navigating them. I began remarking to guests that, if there were anything they wanted, they only had to call down; and I looked forward to those calls, to the challenges they presented. What time does the train leave from Euston for Liverpool Lime Street? Are any restaurants open nearby at this late hour? Sometimes there were more taxing questions: could I clarify one of the rules of chess? Might I summarize the news headlines that morning, to save the caller from getting out of bed? I soon found it was not enough to look up the information – not enough for me, that is. I wanted to be able to answer instantly.
And so I memorized train schedules; I built up a mental telephone directory of Howard’s many useful friends – maître d’s and nightclub owners and theatre impresarios. I learned the streets of London as well as any taxi driver; I could bring to mind the different time zones of the world, or the address of the place where you could get crumpets at one in the morning, or the names of people who had stayed weeks before. When someone forgot to take their room key out and came shamefacedly to the desk for a replacement, I would recall their name and room without their having to say it.
I had always had a precise memory; as a child I used to challenge myself to learn lists of monarchs or Underground stops in order, to take my mind off other things. But I had never thought of it as being particularly valuable. In the army, the only function of my memory was to remind me how much better life was before I signed up. In the Hotel Alpha, memory was an asset: it helped to get guests what they wanted. And that was one of the only instructions Howard gave me. ‘Find out what people want. Make it happen. That’s what the Alpha is for.’
His idea of what that meant, however, was rather more elaborate than mine, as I was to discover as the months and years went by.
One day in 1965 I was given the keys to the hotel’s Mercedes and asked to drive a man to Heathrow ‘just a little bit faster than the speed limit’, as Howard put it.
‘That is, of course, illegal,’ I pointed out.
‘Oh, not very illegal,’ said Howard impatiently. ‘Now the thing is, my friend is in danger of missing his flight.’ He indicated a nervous-looking Spanish fellow who was pacing up and down, uttering the odd word I did not care for.
‘When does it leave?’
‘In twenty minutes.’ Howard made it sound as if this were no more than a minor concern. ‘But I’ve told you, Graham: planes don’t want you to miss them. You get him there, fast as you can. I’ll do the necessary to ensure that the plane doesn’t take off on time. When you get there, go to British Airways’ desk and say my name, and it should be fine.’
I put on the driving gloves which Pattie and I had bought in Savile Row in order to protect the beautiful ivory of the steering wheel, and started the car. When we were close to the edge of the city – not far from Fuller’s Brewery, its white brickwork glistening in the wet night and lent a molten appearance by the floodlights – the man began to talk to me about Esperanto, a project for which he was trying to raise money in order to popularize it. It was very often near the brewery that passengers first struck up a conversation. If they were new to London, this was the moment at which the city began to assume its distinctive shapes and dance around them; if they had been to Heathrow to drop someone off, it was around now that they began to realize the person was really gone.
Esperanto was a language gaining in popularity, said my passenger, and in fifty years it would be spoken by half of the world’s population.
‘Well,’ I said, ‘best of luck with that. What is the … Esperanto for “good luck”?’
‘Bonan sancon. The “sh” sound, it is just one “s”, with a little curly line which sits on the top.’
‘Bonan sancon, then!’ I repeated. ‘But then, we might be better off saving up your luck to ensure you make this flight …’
‘Ah, the flight will be cool,’ said the Spanish gentleman, ‘thanks to old Howard-you-like.’
I had no idea how he knew this nickname of Howard’s – a popular play on his insatiable energy and his ability to get what he asked for – but it sometimes seemed that everyone knew everything about him. Everything, at least, that he wanted them to know. And when we got there, things did indeed go just as my boss had said. At the check-in desk, his name provoked a knowing wink and nod from the lady in a blue blouse, and I was informed that the flight was taking off an hour later than anticipated. I did not ask, on my return to the Alpha, how Howard had – as he always put it– ‘made this happen’. It was none of my business.
Occasionally I had legitimate reason to question him. There was once a man whose name stayed in the ledger for five pages running: SAUNDERS, in Room 34. He was late to check out, presenting himself at one in the afternoon, and when I wrote out the bill and gave it to him, he looked at it as if I were being rather unreasonable.
‘Look, the thing is,’ Saunders said, fiddling with the cuff of his leather jacket, ‘it’s going to be difficult for me to pay that.’
‘May I ask why?’
‘Well, to be completely honest, I haven’t got it.’
‘You don’t have enough money?’
‘I haven’t got a penny on me.’
‘A cheque, then, or … ?’
‘I haven’t got a penny,’ repeated the man, flashing me a yellow-toothed grin of apology.
I wanted to box his ears. It felt as if he had taken a great liberty, not just with me, but with the hotel: if people were going to stay here and eat and drink with no notion of how they might pay at the end, we might as well open a soup kitchen. Howard, however, felt differently.
‘What about if you write out an IOU,’ he suggested, ‘and you come back whenever you can and pay it?’
‘Really, Howard,’ I began, ‘this seems very … ’
But the matter was done. They had shaken hands on it. Saunders, his travelling case swinging by his side, was off to play the same trick on another hotel. I looked at Howard in disappointment. He swept a hand through his thick hair and grinned.
‘He’ll be back.’
I did not believe he was right, but three years before I would not have believed that a hotel of this order could spring out of the dust, and that I could have a part in it. I muttered something to the effect that I was sure it would all be fine in the end.
Howard slapped me on the shoulder. ‘It will be. It always is.’
His habit of seeing things in the simplest, most crudely optimistic terms sometimes exasperated me, but it is hard to argue with optimism when it so often proves itself right.
As time went by I stayed later and later at the reception desk. Sometimes I was home at midnight, sometimes even after that.
Pattie would leave me a plate of ham and chips, which was still all I ever wanted: I had tried an egg once or twice, but found it unbalanced the meal. I ate quietly, went up to bed, where she would already be asleep, and in the morning there would be time for a few words over breakfast before I went to the bus stop and began to breathe in– even before arriving there– the warmth of the atrium, the busy hum of people heading out to mysterious appointments or bedding down in the bar.
Sunday was my day off: on those days Pattie and I went down to Greenwich to look for antiques in the market, or spent quiet hours pasting her photographs into albums. In our late twenties we had children: first a daughter, Caroline, and then our son Edward. Pattie took to motherhood with such alacrity, it was as if she had been a parent all along. She rose at five in the morning when one or other of the children cried out; she chose clothes for them, washed their nappies with sleeves rolled up to her armpits, sat at their bedsides to read them stories. The children provided her with what the Hotel Alpha had given me: a shape for life to assume.
Sometimes, as a deserved break from the household routines, Pattie would come for dinner at the hotel, and once – it must have been in my fifth or sixth year – Howard made a big performance of inviting us out to the Ritz with him and Sarah-Jane. He was on vintage form that evening, dressed in heavy platform shoes and a floral-patterned shirt; he juggled the cutlery and asked for a wine which was not on the list but nonetheless appeared shortly afterwards. Pattie, however, remained uncharmed.
‘There’s something not quite right about that man,’ she declared after we had got into bed.
‘What do you mean?’
‘I don’t know. Too good to be true. Something like that.’
I might have said so too, not so long before. But in my time at the hotel, my understanding of what could be true, and of how good things might be, had changed. The more you asked from life −I had heard Howard remark – the more it could provide you. I said something of the sort to Pattie, and she shrugged and said she was sure the Alpha was lovely, and Howard was perfectly all right when you got to know him. After a while she fell asleep, and the conversation was not renewed in the morning.
The more the hotel came to mean to me, the less we discussed it. Howard and Sarah-Jane and the Alpha made up half of my life; my family the other half. But the two sides remained separate. When I set foot in the Alpha each morning, I forgot what was outside the doors.
It was not until the late seventies that the Yorks had their own child: a boy they called Jonathan David, who immediately came to be known as JD. There was plenty of room for him in the Yorks’ household, which was the back half of the Alpha: five floors of rooms invisible to guests, accessible via a concealed door and a passage which now rang with the sound of the baby’s wailing. Sarah-Jane wore pullovers and jeans instead of the frantically patterned dresses she used to favour. Howard – who was almost forty when JD arrived – responded to the change by travelling more; or perhaps it was simply that, by now, he was in great demand. He had written a book about the hotel’s success; he lectured all around the world on business. He was sought after for conferences, invited to the opening nights of musicals. We continued to be one of London’s most popular spots. We entertained Henry Kissinger and the Rolling Stones. A football team, which had won the FA Cup that afternoon, brought the trophy into the atrium and handed it round filled with champagne. This sort of thing happened every other week in the Alpha.
If he enjoyed being a celebrity, Howard was also increasingly conscious of the responsibilities it brought. The hotel had always lent a hand to deserving or merely cash-strapped folk, as we had to that man Saunders who was let off his bill; we had tabs that were never called in, we gave away free meals. Sometimes this was, of course, strategic. Mike Swan, the editor of the feted Swan Hotel Guide, never paid a penny for anything when he made his visits, and we always received the highest possible recommendation in his books. But more often the handouts were purely philanthropic. If someone appeared at the front desk in need of shelter, I was instructed to let Howard know at once: almost always, they found their way onto the guest ledger. This had happened a few months before the fire, in 1984.
The guests were a mother and her three-year-old son, Charles – though she called him Chas. ‘Guests’ had always struck me as a strange word for the people staying in a hotel: it implied that they were invited, when in fact they had invited themselves. In the case of Chas and his mother, even that was putting it too strongly. Life had blown them here: how, exactly, I did not want to ask. Obviously the husband had left, money had run out. The child had matted brown hair and large, light brown eyes; as his mother spoke to me, he flitted about the atrium, stopping to look at a flag which had been set up for the visit of an Arab dignitary. He reached out a hand and touched the flag as if it were precious, glancing over at me to see whether I minded. I winked back.
‘We’ve got nowhere to go,’ said the woman, who was wearing a faded black dress with a hole in one shoulder and a pair of cut-off jeans.
We put them in Room 77, on the top floor. I got used to seeing the lady, whose name was Roz Tanner, and took rather a shine to Chas. My own children were teenagers by now; I brought in rubber balls and jigsaw puzzles they had long outgrown, and watched as Chas, a studious little chap, cantered across the floor after a ball, or sat studying a puzzle. This went on for a while. Roz helped out in the Alpha Bar when Chas was asleep, or waited on tables in the restaurant. Howard and Sarah-Jane got to know her; she became part of the place, in the way people had before. In the way we all had. We talked about finding her a permanent position.
That was the first thing on my mind when, in panic on the back stairs, Howard screamed the number 77 at me. As if a reel of film were unspooling, I saw the past twenty years unravel before me, from that magical afternoon when Howard escorted me past the queue of candidates through the doors, right up to the moment just now when I had parked the Mercedes on the forecourt.
The moments were melting as fast as they always did in this place. Roz Tanner and her little boy were trapped in their room; the room was in flames; the whole of the Alpha, and everything it meant to us, might be about to go up with it. Howard clutched at my wrist; tears were bulging in his eyes. There was a momentary chill in seeing this man, my hero, so pathetically stripped of his powers. To look at him in that moment, anyone would have said that fortune had finally caught up with him. But that would have been to underestimate what the man was capable of, what could happen if he wanted it to.
Excerpted from Hotel Alpha by Mark Watson. Copyright © 2014 by Mark Watson.
First published 2014 by Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world http://www.panmacmillan.com.
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