The von Essen hotel chain has always had something of the Bond villains evil empire about it to me. There’s Cliveden, the undeniably grand but slightly louche front that 007 first encounters. But once inside, he’d pick up some information that led him onto all the other stuff: the helipad in London- for quick getaways, no doubt and after a quickie with a pretty but unappreciated underling, he’d find out about a place where all manner of unspeakable acts are visited upon poor unsuspecting people. This would be the Sharrow Bay Hotel, in Cumbria.
Sharrow Bay has the charm of a badly run NHS ward. We hurried to the Lake District up the M6, unwittingly taking a detour back in time to when there were no service stations, but it didn’t matter because there was no traffic either and you could safely wander across three lanes of motorway without hitting anyone while you looked under your seat for even an old boiled sweet. When we arrived, we were hungry and wanted dinner early-ish.
The lobby is so full of nick-knacks and the big, bulky comfortable chairs beloved of the terminally aged that there’s no room for a front desk, or indeed any sign of a welcome and you’re left to float around for a bit hoping someone with ESP will somehow guess you’ve arrived and come out and help you. In the meantime, you stand there, wondering why they thought it was a good idea to put up a cheaply framed photo of the local air-ambulance. Perhaps the clientele here rely on it.
In The Salon, I am sure they call it The Salon, there are doilies, sofas with respectable upright backs and the kind of photo-books you’d buy your grandmother if she were recuperating. A clock ticks. After a while, as your eyes adjust to the gloom, you realise there are other people in there with you. Sitting in silence at discrete distances from each other, their chairs are arranged so that no one can catch anyone elses eye and well, what exactly? Start a conversation with a stranger? Form an escape committee?
The tall, buttoned-down Maitre D, or manager, or headmaster, or whatever he was, quietly approached us to ask whether we’d like an aperitif, in much the same manner as the vicar asks you whether you knew the dearly departed well. He reminds us that proceedings start at 8, then bows ever so slightly and leaves, sucking any remaining atmosphere out of the room with him. I find myself now talking as quietly as the other husbands. I try again, louder. But since my seat is arranged so that I’m not actually looking at my wife but rather in the same direction as she is, I am not practically shouting at an innocent elderly man sitting across the room in front of the picture window. Through that window and out across the lake, I can feel the dark approaching. I try and read some old magazine, flick idly through one of the photo-books but the clock ticks so damned loudly. I feel the darkness of all eternity closing in on me.
I check my watch. It’s ten to eight. Let’s eat. I get up and approach the waiter standing in front of the door to the restaurant. He looks at me, doesn’t move: met my kind before. But its bloody ten to bloody eight, can’t we eat? He taps his watch: Dinner starts at 8. And slow, ashamed, I turn and retreat to my seat and sit next to my wife, as silently as the other husbands.
The Maitre D, making a reasonable impression of Death, approaches each of us in turn, whispers, It’s time, and escorts us out of the room. In a narrow, coat-brushing corridor, we pass a table of puddings arranged much as the police arrange a haul of deadly weapons, more for information than excitement. I suspect we are expected to stop and admire them, congratulate someone on a good haul.
When we sit down, there are raffle tickets on our table. Halfway through the meal, Death stops by our table to see that everything is alright with our stay. The list of things which actually are not alright is so long our room is cold; there is a glass window in the bedroom door which can’t be covered by any curtain; there is a hole in the skirting board so perfectly mouse-hole shaped that I expect Jerry to walk through it whistling, carrying a triangle of cheese over his shoulder; the TV is so small we have to take turns standing in front of it if we want to watch anything; were paying £200 for all this and the fittings in the bathroom feel plastic and wobbly and the soap smells like a teenage girls first perfume and comes wrapped in tissue and its all so bloody horrible that I smile wanly and don’t say anything.
My wife needed to get up early the next morning to get to a meeting and so she phoned down to find out what time breakfast is served. It’s between 8.30 and 9am. She has to be gone by 7, is there any chance something could be left out for her? They promise something will be.
There never was.