It was somewhere near four o’clock the following afternoon when Michael and I finally reconvened in the cocktail lounge with the ostensible aim of at last getting our search for the hidden door started. I say ostensible because twenty minutes later when Maia walked by we still hadn’t managed to shift ourselves from the two comfy chairs into which we had initially sunk.
“Ah, here’s another couple of late night revellers finally made it back to the land of the living I see,” remarked Maia, looking down on us with a benign eye. “Or should I say early morning revellers. Just what time did you two get to bed?”
“Erm…” said Michael.
I cast my mind back, trying to form some sort of coherent timetable for the previous night but my memories, as with all the best parties, could only be summoned as a series of disconnected flashes through a general haze. “I definitely remember watching the sun come up,” was the best I could finally manage.
“As well you should,” said Maia. “I always think that the sunrise over the ocean is the perfect way to round off a good party.”
“It was a great night,” agreed Michael.
“I can’t help thinking our little beach was made for nights like that,” said Maia indulgently. “We really should do it more often. Nils and Jenni left about lunchtime but they promised to return in a week or two with some fresh tunes in that record box of theirs.”
“A week or two?” I echoed with disappointment. “Oh, I don’t think we’ll be staying that long.”
“That’s a shame,” remarked Maia lightly. “But I hope you’re not planning on rushing off anywhere just yet. I think today at least really ought to be a day of rest and relaxation for all of us after a night like that.”
“Well, we were thinking we ought perhaps to take a bit of a walk around the hotel,” said Michael guiltily.
It looked for a moment as though Maia planned to object to even this half-hearted attempt at activity but instead she lapsed into another of her indulgent smiles. “In that case I imagine you’ll be needing some sustenance to get you going,” was all she said.
“I suppose we’re a bit late for breakfast,” I said regretfully.
“I suppose technically you are,” conceded Maia. “But we’re not really such sticklers for the rules here at the Midnight Hotel. Why don’t I see if I can’t rustle you something up?” And she gave us each an encouraging pat on the shoulder and sauntered cheerfully away across the lounge.
Once she had disappeared I leaned back in my chair and stretched out my weary limbs. “Jeez, I don’t think I’ve danced that much since 90s night at the Thekla,” I remarked. “Maybe Maia’s right and we ought to postpone our exploration till the morning.”
Fully expecting this suggestion to provoke some sort of high-minded rebuke from Michael, I closed my eyes and braced myself for the storm. When, after several seconds he still hadn’t bothered to reply, I opened them again and glanced cautiously in his direction. I found Michael gazing intently across the other side of the room, apparently entranced by something or someone. He remained in rapt silence like this for a minute or two before distractedly muttering, “That must be him.”
“Must be who?” I demanded, trying to follow his eye and yet unable to spot anyone amongst the few disparate guests who might be worthy of such preoccupation.
“Henry James,” replied Michael in a tone of hushed awe.
I looked again, following the direction of his discreet nod, but could see only a moon-faced, middle-aged man in a dark suit reading a newspaper. “What, you mean… Henry James?”
“Exactly,” replied Michael, moving up a notch from hushed reverence to genuine excitement. “The great novelist Henry James. Luther told me last night that he was staying here but I wasn’t sure whether or not to believe him.”
“Who’s Luther?” I asked.
“He’s the one with the plaited beard who played the bongos and recited Keats at midnight.”
“And, if Luther is to be believed, that is the actual, real-world Henry James. Not just some fictional character or imaginary construct,” added Michael.
I glanced over once more at the somewhat portly figure, trying to assess the validity of such a claim. “Well, Maia did say they get a number of real world figures staying here,” I mused. “And last night Susie told me that this place is a real haven for writers and artists.”
“Who’s Susie?” asked Michael.
“She’s the one who climbed up on that rock and took all her clothes off during the acid funk mix of Higher State of Consciousness.”
“If that really is the actual, real-world Henry James,” I said after a moment or two of further contemplation, “then what’s he doing in the landscape of the imagination?”
“I’m not sure,” conceded Michael. “They say he arrived at the hotel a few weeks ago in the company of a young painter named Patrick.”
“Ah well, that’s one academic question finally answered,” I noted.
“Not necessarily,” returned Michael. “It seems Patrick moved on after a few days but Henry James has stayed on alone ever since.”
Further speculation on the topic was temporarily curtailed by the arrival of Gennaro, the doodling waiter we’d first met the previous day, bearing two bacon sandwiches and a large pot of tea. He paused just long enough to share a few party memories and casually berate the pair of us for refusing earlier to be corralled into an early morning skinny dip, before leaving us to our late afternoon breakfast.
We said little while we ate, partly because Michael was too busy throwing surreptitious glances at the renowned author every other minute.
“Why don’t you just go over and say hello?” I said in exasperation, when our plates were empty.
“I wouldn’t want to intrude,” returned Michael.
“I don’t see why you should,” I countered. “He doesn’t exactly look engrossed by that newspaper.”
“He may be waiting for somebody,” Michael suggested.
There was certainly something in the way James kept looking up from his paper and glancing anxiously around the room to support this hypothesis. “Maybe he’s been stood up,” I suggested in return. “In that case he’d probably welcome a bit of company.”
Michael considered this proposition with a degree of optimism for a moment or two but then shook his head.
“Why not?” I persisted. “It’s not like you to be shy.”
“Yes but that’s Henry James,” said Michael, reverting to his tone of hushed awe. “He’s one of the greatest authors of all time.”
“If you say so.”
Michael looked at me sharply. “You don’t think Henry James is a great author?”
I wrinkled my nose in a manner designed to indicate that I could take him or leave him. “He’s not really my cup of tea. They made us read The Wings of the Dove in Sixth Form College. I can’t really be doing with all those tubercular heroines wafting ethereally around Venetian palazzos.”
“You should give him another try,” insisted Michael disapprovingly. “If you explored a little further you’d find he’s really a very profound writer with a lot of interesting things to say about human psychology.”
“Maybe, but does he have to say them in such bloody long sentences?” I complained. “Honestly, reading a page of his work can be like wading through the aftermath of an explosion in a comma factory.”
“It’s about creating an effect.”
“It’s more likely to bore the reader to death,” I countered. “But that’s no reason not to go over and say hello. There’s nothing to say he has to be quite so boring in person.”
Before Michael could issue any further objections I hoisted myself up out of my seat and set my aching legs on a course for Henry James. Under the circumstances there was little that Michael could do but trail uncertainly along in my wake.
“Mr James?” I began respectfully.
The expression on the smooth round face as it looked up in response sat somewhere on a sliding scale between mild dismay and outright distrust but I refused to be deterred. I wasn’t normally one to be so bold but the bacon sandwich was having an invigorating effect and, truth be told, it’s far easier to approach a famous face if you don’t happen to think the sun shines out of their backside.
“Excuse the interruption,” I continued smoothly, “but we – that is, my friend, Michael here and I – just wanted to tell you what great admirers we are of your work.”
The distrust melted away and a look of slightly weary indulgence came over James’s face, like that of a man who’s just been offered a third slice of cake by an over-zealous hostess. “Why thank-you,” he replied graciously. “Won’t you sit down?”
“We wouldn’t want to intrude,” remarked Michael cautiously with a brief nod in the direction of James’s newspaper.
“Not at all,” countered James amiably, folding away the offending item. “In truth there’s very little in the way of actual news,” he added as we sat down, “but it gives me an excuse to sit in peace. I do enjoy the restful nature of the lounge at this hour. It seems quieter than ever today.”
“I suppose most people are still recovering from the effects of the party,” remarked Michael.
“Ah yes, the party,” said James sourly.
“Not quite your cup of tea I’m guessing,” I suggested with a mild grin.
James replied by way of a slight shudder. “Fortunately Maia was able to offer me a room for the night in a secluded wing of the hotel so I was not disturbed. Our hostess is always so thoughtful in these matters.”
We both offered our assent to this proposition but, the thoughtfulness of our hostess having been agreed by all, silence then fell for a moment. James sat expectantly, apparently expecting a further gambit from our side of the table, but Michael was uncharacteristically silent, seeming a little overawed in the presence of the great author. I was not entirely averse to shouldering the conversational burden but, given my limited appreciation of Mr James’s work, I felt rather constrained by the likelihood that, should the discussion stray in a literary direction, I was bound to somehow or other put my foot in it.
“Have you been here long?” I finally asked in the hope of steering the conversation in a more neutral direction.
“A few weeks I suppose,” replied James carelessly. “The days here tend rather to run into one another after a while.”
“Will you be staying much longer?” I asked.
“It’s hard to say,” said James evasively. He glanced thoughtfully around the room. “Hotels are such transient places, aren’t they? Normally I find the prospect of staying at one for any length of time quite wearisome. Yet there is something strangely restful about the Midnight Hotel. Don’t you think?”
“I suppose,” I replied. “But I wasn’t thinking of the hotel so much as the landscape. What I meant to say was, will you be staying in the landscape of the imagination for much longer? After all, you’re not from these parts, are you?”
James looked at me sharply. “Of course. I forget what places hotels are for gossip,” he said wearily. “But you are correct – I am not native to this land.” There was an awkward pause and he sighed heavily. “Now I suppose you want to ask me what the real world is actually like. People always do when they hear where I come from.”
“Actually, you’re alright on that score,” I returned with a grin. “We’ve pretty much got that covered.”
James regarded me with a puzzled expression for a moment before he quite caught my meaning. “Oh,” he said in a tone of surprise. “You too?”
He looked from me to Michael and then back again. “Both of you?”
We both nodded.
“Oh,” he said again. “Well, there’s a turn up.” James sat back in his chair, taking a minute to absorb this information. “I suppose I ought to have guessed really. After all, strange as it may seem, in this world one is more likely to come across someone from within one’s own books than someone who has read them.”
“What was it that brought you to the landscape of the imagination?” asked Michael, curiosity finally dragging him from his worshipful reverie.
Henry James hesitated. I couldn’t quite make out whether this indicated an unwillingness to reply or merely an uncertainty about how to. “It’s rather a long story,” he said uncomfortably. “If you must know, I came here to find someone. Someone from the real world.”
I felt an odd shiver run down my spine. Michael and I exchanged glances. “A friend of yours?” asked Michael.
“Hardly,” replied James ruefully. “You might perhaps call her a friend of a friend.”
“A friend perhaps of the guy you arrived at the Midnight Hotel with?” I said, curiosity drawing the suggestion from my lips before I’d had time to consider whether it was entirely tactful.
“More hotel gossip?” remarked James disdainfully.
“Sorry,” I said sheepishly. “It’s just that we did hear that there was someone with you when you first came to the hotel. A guy called Patrick, wasn’t it?” I added, feeling that now that I’d blundered onto the subject I might as well give my curiosity full reign.
James sighed. “I suppose I can’t deny the accuracy of the gossips on this occasion. Yes, it was Patrick with whom I first came to the hotel and it is his friend we hope to find in the landscape.”
There was an awkward pause. Michael and I were both full of questions but James’s reticence on the subject made it difficult to know quite how to frame them.
“Do you know whereabouts in the landscape this friend of Patrick’s ought to be?” Michael eventually asked.
James shook his head. “No idea. That’s rather the problem.” There was another lengthy pause whilst James carefully weighed his words. “They’re both painters, Patrick and Diana – that’s his friend’s name,” he finally explained. “They went to art school together. But then Diana took a break to do some travelling. Around the real world, I mean to say. Well, at first, that is. But then she suddenly showed up at Patrick’s studio one night, talking excitedly about a door in the wall she had found which would lead to the landscape of the imagination.
“But then she simply vanished. Soon after, Patrick received word that she had made her way into the landscape but that she may be in some danger. He felt it was his duty to follow.”
Again I felt a shiver, even stronger than before. “So you came with him?” I prompted.
James nodded. “We’ve been searching for Diana ever since. Though I’m sorry to say without much success. This is not an easy landscape to negotiate.”
I offered him a sympathetic smile. “You and this Patrick – are you, er, close then?” I asked, phrasing my question with difficulty. “What I mean to say is, he must be quite a friend for you to accompany him all this way.”
Henry James responded with a brief, harsh laugh. “To tell the truth, before this adventure we’d never even met,” he said sharply. “In fact, it would have been quite impossible for us to have met in the real world given that Patrick’s birth did not take place until twenty years after I had passed away.”
Michael and I exchanged another, more significant, glance. “You mean to say you’re…” Michael began.
James nodded again. “I have already lived out my days on earth, yes,” he confirmed. “I was actually summoned from death to aid Patrick on his quest.” He paused, regarding us with an air of mild triumph. “Now I’ve shocked you, haven’t I? I’m sure you never imagined you would find yourselves exchanging pleasantries with a dead man.”
“And now you’ll want to know all about what it feels like to be dead,” continued James, not waiting for a response. “I expect you’re brimming with questions about what occurs beyond the veil. Well I’m sorry, but I must disappoint you there. For it is a condition of my return that I know nothing of my time beyond the mortal world. Death must remain that undiscovered country…”
“…from whose bourn no traveller returns.” Michael finished the quotation with him but James scarcely noticed. His attention had suddenly been snatched by something across the other side of the room. I followed his gaze to find an elegantly dressed young woman with dark hair had just entered via the terrace doors and was hovering uncertainly on the edge of the cocktail lounge. Her appearance seemed to have utterly captivated Henry James.
“Where is Patrick now?” I asked abruptly in an effort to draw James’s attention back to our conversation.
“Patrick?” replied James distractedly. “Oh, he had a lead he wanted to follow.”
“Then what about you?” asked Michael. “Shouldn’t you have gone with him?”
But James’s eyes were still fixed on the dark-haired young woman who was gazing absently around the room as if unsure whether to come right in or go back out again. “Yes of course,” James murmured carelessly in response to Michael’s question. “I mean, I’m sure I will – at some point.”
“You intend to go and join Patrick?” I pressed him.
Across the room Gennaro, the waiter, had now approached the dark lady and seemed to be enticing her to stay with the offer of a drink.
“Possibly,” replied James, his attention still firmly on the woman. “Or perhaps Patrick will return here. One or the other.”
“You’re expecting him to contact you, are you?” asked Michael.
“Yes… no… I should think so,” replied James with a hint of irritation. He watched intently as, having considered Gennaro’s proposition, the dark lady made up her mind with an abrupt shake of the head and promptly swept back out of the terrace doors. “I’m sorry, you really must excuse me,” James said hastily, cutting off any further follow-up questions. With the briefest of nods to us he hurried away through the tables and chairs without a backwards glance.
Michael and I sat in a bemused silence for a minute or two after he had left. “Well, whatever do you make of all that?” Michael finally asked with a puzzled air.
I gazed at the open terrace doors through which the author had just disappeared in pursuit of his elegant quarry. “I guess maybe our Henry plays for both teams after all,” I replied casually.
“Not that,” retorted Michael testily. “I meant what did you make of his tale about Patrick and their quest to find the missing Diana?”
“Oh that,” I said, sinking back into my chair with a baffled shrug. “Yeah, that was a bit strange, wasn’t it? It sounded disconcertingly like Henry James has been stealing our storyline.”
To be continued…