Having made his confession Henry James declined the offer of a third bourbon and, pleading tiredness, retired to his room. I sensed that, on reflection, he rather regretted his candour for in the days that followed he returned to his elusive ways. Michael was undoubtedly disappointed to find no immediate opportunity for extending his acquaintance with the great novelist but I can’t say I was altogether bothered myself, having other things on my mind, not least the stalled search for Sturridge’s lost room.
I thought I’d made a breakthrough the very morning after our talk on the terrace with James. A chance wandering down a rear pathway caused me to bump straight into Maia. She was happy to pause for a chat and this time, by dint of sheer willpower, I managed to hold her to the point just long enough for her to recollect that she was fairly sure she had a detailed plan of the hotel locked away in one of the drawers of her office. Having secured from her a promise that she would dig out this plan later that very day in order to lend it to me, I went on my way with an air of mild triumph.
Unfortunately, between a lazy lunch, a quite epic game of beach cricket in the afternoon and cocktails on the terrace in the evening, I never quite succeeded in catching up with Maia again that day. At the time it didn’t seem like much of a problem but then I failed to catch her again the next day and the day after that. I managed several brief glimpses of her in the days that followed but she was always in the process of being whisked away by a member of staff or another hotel guest and so the hotel plan remained tantalisingly out of reach. So it was that by the end of the week Michael and I were back down on the beach, counting windows again.
We set off down the stone pathway not long after breakfast with the idea that a focussed effort should see the whole of the hotel exterior surveyed by lunchtime. However, it was such a lovely day that the beach was soon littered with bathers and mid-morning strollers, every one of whom seemed determined, in the nicest possible way, to interrupt us. The sun was approaching its midday peak by the time we managed to carve out a secluded niche for ourselves on the edge of the sand where we could work in peace.
“…29, 30!” I exclaimed in triumph, finally managing, after countless abortive attempts, to tot up the number of windows on the first floor. “So that’s 30 rooms on the first floor.”
“Not necessarily,” returned Michael, jotting the information down in a little notebook he had acquired for the purpose nonetheless. “You’re assuming that every room has only one window.”
“Well they do, don’t they?” I retorted. “I mean, my room’s only got one window. How many has yours got?”
“Yes but our rooms are both located on the second floor,” pointed out Michael. “We don’t know that the rooms on the first floor follow the same pattern.”
I squinted up uncertainly at the windows in question. “Well they’re pretty big windows,” I judged. “I think it’s probably a fair guess to say there’s only one to a room.”
“We must be sure though, otherwise all our calculations are a waste,” insisted Michael, looking thoughtfully at his notebook. “We really need to look around a first floor room. Do we know any guests with rooms on the first floor?”
“We know plenty of guests but I have no idea which of them resides on which floor,” I replied with a growing sense of irritation.
“Perhaps we could get a look at the hotel register,” suggested Michael brightly.
“Considering the trouble we’ve had getting hold of a plan of the hotel, I don’t much fancy our chances with the register.”
“Hmm,” Michael considered this point thoughtfully. “Maybe if one of us asked to switch rooms. We could say we were getting vertigo up on the second floor.”
“Oh this is hopeless!” I exclaimed as all my pent up frustration suddenly burst free. “How can it be so bloody difficult just to count up the number of rooms in a hotel?”
“It does seem to have been an unusually convoluted process,” conceded Michael, snapping shut his notebook in resignation.
“Sometimes I think they should rename this place the Hotel California,” I muttered grumpily. “It seems you can check out anytime but you can never leave.”
“Patrick left,” Michael pointed out lightly.
“But he had to abandon Henry James in order to do so,” I countered.
“Poor Henry,” mused Michael. “I don’t think he found the landscape beyond this hotel quite to his liking.”
“Frankly, I don’t know what he’s complaining about. At least he got to see a dragon.”
“You’re not still harping on that, are you?”
“Well, all the time we’ve been wandering around this landscape we’ve never got to see a dragon,” I griped. “Never seen a fairy, elf, hobgoblin or a troll. Never met a muppet, never ridden in a spaceship…” Catching a glimpse of Michael’s expression I reluctantly cut short my catalogue of missing sights. “I’m just saying that, in some respects, this landscape has been something of a disappointment.”
“There’s still plenty of landscape for us to cover,” offered Michael. “I’m sure there’s time enough for a dragon or two before we’re done.”
“I hope so.”
Michael slipped his notebook back into his pocket. We turned away from the hotel and began to stroll casually along the water’s edge.
“Perhaps the true lesson is that in the end everyone finds the landscape they deserve,” mused Michael as we strolled. “A pleasantly situated hotel full of intricate social situations certainly seems right up Henry James’s street.”
“Particularly once you throw in a mysterious dark-haired young beauty for him to puzzle over,” I added.
“If she turns out to have a massive inheritance and an unsuitable suitor lurking somewhere in the background then I’d say he’s hit the jackpot,” I remarked. “I’m not sure it’s entirely fair on Patrick though – he does seem to have been left in the lurch a bit.”
“Perhaps he was right when he said he’d be better off alone,” suggested Michael. “Or maybe he’ll come across someone new on his travels better equipped to be his companion.”
“It doesn’t say a lot for these supposed powers-that-be though, does it, if they thought those two were the perfect team,” I pointed out.
Michael responded with a wry smile. “I think we’re obliged to accept at this stage that they have a pretty haphazard method of approach to their business.”
I hesitated a moment. “We’ve always got along alright though, haven’t we?” I said lightly.
“I’d say so.”
“Although, I suppose I really ought to say,” I added rather awkwardly, fixing my eyes on my bare feet as they kicked along the surf, “that, well, knowing what we now know, I wouldn’t like to think you felt obliged to stick around if you didn’t really want to.”
“Why wouldn’t I want to stick around?” asked Michael. “Are you trying to get rid of me?” he added lightly.
“No, of course not,” I returned quickly. “It’s just that, well, Sturridge got himself into this mess and, however the powers-that-be might have originally presented this mission to you, I think we can see now that they’re not to be entirely trusted so, if there was a point when you felt you didn’t want to tag along any further…” Sensing I was making something of a hash of my speech and feeling the colour rising in my cheeks, I bent down for a moment to pick a pebble out from between my toes. “I’m just saying that if there was somewhere else you felt you’d rather be, well, then you should know that I wouldn’t hold it against you.”
“As you’re so fond of pointing out, I’m dead. Where else do you imagine I might rather be?” asked Michael.
“I didn’t mean it like that,” I retorted. “I just meant that now you’re in the landscape there might be places you’d like to go. You spent a whole lifetime dabbling professionally in the imagination, after all. Aren’t there stories you’d like to visit, say, or characters you might want to see?”
“Oh, I see what you mean,” said Michael. For a moment he gazed thoughtfully out to the horizon. “I suppose, if you come to mention it…” he began but then drifted away into another absorbed expression.
“Go on,” I prompted.
“Ah, but in this landscape wanting to see something and knowing how to get to it are two very different things,” replied Michael. “It seems to me that the more you aim for something the less likely you are to reach it.”
“That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try,” I countered. “You shouldn’t miss out on what could be your one and only chance to experience such things out of some misguided sense of duty.”
“Neither, for that matter, should you,” retorted Michael. “Everything you’ve said applies just as much to you as to me. No-one would blame you if you abandoned Sturridge to his fate and pursued your own interests but I don’t for a moment suppose you ever would, would you?” Michael looked at me and smiled. “You never, for instance, thought of taking Jerry up on his offer of a detective partnership?” This last was half question, half statement.
“How did you know about Jerry’s offer?” I said sharply.
Michael grinned. “Woody assured me Jerry was bound to make an offer before we left,” he explained. “I’m afraid it tends to be standard procedure whenever he comes across a woman he considers suitably smart and attractive.”
An unexpectedly sharp stab of disappointment at learning I was not a special case was somewhat tempered by the thought that this at least meant I fell into the category of ‘smart and attractive’. “Any of them ever take him up on it?” I asked with genuine curiosity.
“There were one or two, I believe, who were willing to give it a try,” confessed Michael. “None of them lasted very long.”
Now it was my turn to smile. “Well, that’s Jerry for you. Great for a fling but he’s not exactly what you would call a long-term prospect.”
“You’ll have to blame Felicity Fortescue for that,” suggested Michael. “She wrote him that way.”
“Which, if you ask me, is a little rich given her attitude to the male species,” added Michael. “It’s hardly fair to complain about the faithlessness of men in general when, given the chance to create one of your own, you go and give him the exact same flaw.”
“Ah well, there you have the writer’s curse I’m afraid,” I said philosophically. “You might write a character you loathe or despise but you can’t write one you don’t believe in. Felicity could make Jerry handsome, charming and fun to be around but she couldn’t make him faithful because in her mind there is no such thing as a faithful man.”
“Perhaps you’re right,” conceded Michael. We walked on a little further in silence before he lightly added, “So where does your ‘fling’ with Jerry leave things between you and that boyfriend of yours back home?”
I instinctively turned my gaze out to sea in an effort to conceal the uncomfortable frown that fell over my face at the mention of Peter. “It leaves things where they’ve always been,” I casually returned. “Why shouldn’t it?”
Michael gave me a look. “Oh, so you think he’ll be fine with you cheating on him, do you?”
“It’s not really cheating though, is it?” I pleaded weakly. “Not with a fictional character. I mean, everyone’s cheated on their partner with a fictional character. We do it all the time. This was just a bit more, well… tangible, that’s all.”
“Well, so long as you’re sure that Peter will see it that way,” said Michael with a shrug.
“Who says he has to see it in any particular way?” I countered.
“So you intend to lie to him about it, do you?” said Michael with a raised eyebrow.
“Not lie necessarily…” I began.
“That’s what it amounts to if you don’t plan on telling him the truth,” insisted Michael, taking what seemed to me an unexpectedly high moral line on the subject.
“That’s hardly fair,” I protested. “I’m just saying that, supposing I ever do get back to the real world – and that’s a big if right there – and supposing I return to find everything just as I left it and I’m supposed to just pick up right where I left off – another big if. Well, can you seriously imagine me sitting Peter down and explaining to him everything that’s happened to me since I fell into the landscape? He’d just think I was nuts.”
Michael continued to regard me with an unexpectedly righteous expression.
“I just don’t think it’s practical, besides anything else,” I went on. “I mean, we’ve packed in a lot of story already and who knows how much further we might have to travel. I reckon an edited highlights is the very best he can hope for.” I hopped lightly over the remnants of an unusually large wave that rolled up the beach. “And well, maybe under those circumstances there are some things that people are just better off not knowing.”
“That sounds very much like a cop out to me,” said Michael, still unconvinced.
“Sorry, remind me – just why am I taking relationship advice from you anyway?” I retorted in frustration. “In what world were you ever the ideal husband or partner?”
Michael briefly turned his head away and I instantly regretted my petulant comment.
“You’re right, I don’t suppose I have a track record to inspire much confidence,” he finally said. “But if there’s one thing I did learn during my lifetime it’s that a relationship can survive pretty much anything you can throw at it but only if the couple are prepared to be totally honest with each other.”
I conceded his point with a mumbled apology and we continued our stroll along the shoreline in silence for a minute or two.
“Anyway, mention of Felicity Fortescue reminds me of another important point,” I finally said, attempting to steer the conversation in a less contentious direction, “and that’s that our story is starting to sound far from unique. Not only are Patrick and Henry James scouring the landscape for a lost traveller but she came here in search of a missing traveller too.”
“I thought Felicity Fortescue came to the landscape to find Jerry,” said Michael.
“That’s what she told us. But that kid that worked in her office – what was his name? – he told me that she originally came to find someone from her own world. It wasn’t till later that she thought of looking Jerry up.”
Michael threw me a puzzled glance. “But she seemed pretty settled with her detective agency when we saw her,” he said. “How could she be on the trail of someone at the same time?”
“According to the kid something, or someone, scared her off,” I explained. “She settled for the detective agency as a consolation prize.”
Michael paused, bent down and picked a round flat pebble up off the beach whilst he considered this information. “Well, as we’ve said all along, it’s a pretty big landscape,” he mused, turning the pebble distractedly over and over in his hand. “Original stories are probably pretty hard to come by.”
“Maybe, but what worries me is that none of these tales appear to be heading towards what you might call a satisfying conclusion,” I pointed out. “You’ve got Felicity Fortescue drinking herself to sleep in Havana and Patrick and Henry having come to blows. Happy endings seem to be a little thin on the ground.”
Michael continued to study his pebble for a moment, apparently searching for an appropriate response. Finally he reached back and let it fly, sending it skimming out over the waves. “Then I suppose we’ll just have to be the exception to the rule,” he concluded when it had finally sunk from view.
I turned and gazed gloomily up at the hotel. “That’s supposing we ever get out of this place,” I muttered.
“C’mon, let’s have a go at the second floor,” said Michael, drawing his notebook back out of his pocket with an air of determination. “Then maybe we can take a break for lunch.”
“Make it lunch and an ice-cream and you’re on,” I offered.
“Alright then, lunch and an ice-cream,” conceded Michael. “Now, get counting.”
To be continued…