We got the second floor wrapped up just in time for lunch but our plans to complete a full survey of the ocean side of the hotel were interrupted by another outbreak of beach cricket in the afternoon. In fact, the sport developed into something of a passion over the next few days amongst both staff and guests – pretty soon teams had been fixed and a full blown tournament was being organised – and I must confess I got kind of swept away with the spirit of the thing. I can’t say cricket was a sport I had much time for back in the real world but the leisurely pace of the game seemed perfectly suited to the languorous atmosphere of the Midnight Hotel. It was most pleasant to spend an afternoon fielding on the beach, with the sand between your toes and the sun on your back, taking your turn at deep cover beneath the shade of the cliffs when the sun became too hot to bear.
My batting technique could best be described as erratic but Samson the porter determined that with a bit of coaching I might be developed into a decent enough middle-order batsman and promptly signed me up for his team.
Not that the cricket caused me to entirely forget the hunt for the hidden room. I managed to bump into Maia several times over the next few days, determined on each occasion to chivvy from her that plan of the hotel she had promised us. But she was buzzing with news that Nils and Jenni were to return shortly and, busy planning for a beach blowout even more epic than the last, seemed to have no time for anything that wasn’t party-related. So every conversation we had might have started with my prompting and prodding her about the plan but they inevitably spiralled into a debate about the merits of acid house against northern soul for getting a dancefloor really jumping or a discourse on the best type of rice to serve with barbecue chicken.
Normally I would have relied upon Michael to keep me focused on the search for Sturridge but he had distractions of his own at this time. He was only sporadically involved with the beach cricket but that was because most of his time was now devoted to a burgeoning friendship with Henry James. Perhaps realising it was both absurd and impossible to continue to try and avoid us, James had tentatively emerged from his self-imposed seclusion and could generally be found most afternoons ready to hold court in the cocktail lounge or on the terrace. He swiftly made it clear that he considered the subject of Patrick and his reasons for coming to the landscape to be taboo but he was perfectly willing to converse on such neutral topics as literature or philosophy. As you might imagine, these restrictions left me with a rather restrained acquaintance with the author but, under such conditions, Michael and Henry James soon became firm friends.
The friendship grew yet stronger when an incidental disclosure of Michael’s occupation led to the issue of ‘the stage’ being added to the list of sanctioned subjects. Soon James was devoting lengthy hours to prolonged discursions on how theatre could better convey the deeper emotions and more subtle gradations of character he considered to be the more usual provenance of the novel. These methods, it seemed to me, were generally so oblique as likely to bore any self-respecting audience to tears (I always suspected that he thought the true answer to the question of how theatre might better represent the subtleties of literature was in fact to have someone stand onstage and simply read one of his interminable novels from start to finish) but Michael seemed content to listen nonetheless.
The three of us were gathered one evening in the hour before dinner in the cocktail lounge, where James had just embarked on one such lengthy disquisition. I’m afraid, as usual, I found little in the conversation to interest me and this might explain why I finished the by now traditional pre-dinner cocktail rather quicker than I intended.
I soon found I’d finished a second in record time too.
Gennaro promptly popped up to offer another but I reasoned that, after an afternoon spent practising forward defensive strokes under a blazing sun, a third cocktail on an empty stomach might not be the wisest of moves. So, taking advantage of a rare Jamesian pause for breath, I made my excuses and took myself off for a short stroll.
It was that magical hour when the sun, having long since slipped its mid-afternoon mooring, sank low enough to cast the landscape in a gorgeous array of dense pinks and deep oranges. I passed quickly across the terrace, not wanting to fall prey to any invitations from the more sociable guests gathered there that might lead to further drinking. I hesitated for a moment at the top of the path leading down to the beach, contemplating a late saunter across the sands, but then something drew me away and I struck out instead along the clifftop path that hugged the headland.
The evening shadows had by now deepened so far that I didn’t spot the elegant, willowy figure standing on the edge of the path until I was almost on top of her. And she was gazing so intently out to sea that she didn’t notice my approach until about the same moment when she suddenly leapt back with a startled gasp.
“Hey, steady!” I blurted out as her stumble took her towards the cliff edge.
The woman, glancing down and noticing how close her startled leap had taken her to the precipice, gave another gasp. But she swiftly pulled herself together and took a steady, deliberate step away from the edge.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you,” I said, recognising the finely sculpted features of the mysterious dark lady of Henry James’ imagination.
“Oh that’s alright hun,” she replied in a surprisingly broad cockney accent. “S’pose I was a bit distracted.” She threw a wistful glance back out over the sea before turning to examine me shrewdly. “You alone?” she added.
I nodded. “Yep, just me,” I told her. She said nothing but continued to peer doubtfully over my shoulder. “Honestly, you’re quite safe,” I reassured her. “Henry James is in the cocktail lounge, expounding on the actor’s art for the benefit of my friend.”
“Thank God for that!” exclaimed the dark lady with a heavy sigh of relief. Then she caught my amused grin and replied with a sly smile of her own. “Oh, I don’t want to be rude. I’m sure he’s alright really,” she said. “But he will keep following me around with that hangdog face of his. It’s enough to give anyone the willies.”
“I guess he is something of an acquired taste,” I remarked diplomatically.
“I wouldn’t mind so much if he had anything to say for himself,” my companion went on. “But he comes creeping up and moons over you like he’s got the most important thing in the world to tell you. But then he never utters a word! He just stands there, gawping, like he’s staring into the very depths of my soul. Either that or he’s trying to figure out what I had for me dinner.”
“It could be worse,” I noted cheerfully. “You could find yourself subject to one of his lectures on the meaning of literature.”
The dark lady giggled. “See? It’s obvious we have nothing in common. I know I probably shouldn’t but I figured the best idea was just to avoid him altogether. I reckon sooner or later he’ll find himself another girl to stalk.”
“I wouldn’t be too sure,” I felt obliged to caution her.
The dark woman swept aside my gloomy prognosis with a shake of her head. “Nah, course he will,” she insisted. “These things often catch hold deep but they still pass soon enough. Like indigestion.”
“I’m Natasha by the way,” I said, feeling that the exchange had by now progressed far enough to warrant introductions.
“Ella,” returned my companion after a brief hesitation.
Introductions being thus completed the conversation then fell into an immediate lull. Ella turned her attention back out to sea.
“Lovely view,” I remarked casually.
Ella nodded distractedly. I sensed that she would probably be happiest at this point to be left alone once more and I toyed with the idea of continuing on my way. But, as always, curiosity got the better of me.
“I hope you don’t think I’m being nosey but I have to ask,” I finally said. “What exactly is it that you’re looking for out there?”
Ella looked at me sharply. “Who says I’m looking for anything?” she demanded defensively.
“No-one,” I replied with a shrug. “Only it’s not the first time I’ve noticed you up on the cliffs here. Always on the same spot, always gazing out to sea. It’s like you expect something to pop up over the horizon any minute.”
Ella sighed. “Not expect exactly,” she said. “Just hope.”
“Hope for what?” I asked.
Ella paused, gazing at me for a moment with narrowed eyes, judging quite how far she ought to trust me.
“I’ve only seen it the once,” she eventually confessed. “Just a day or two after I first arrived. A ship it was. A strange looking boat with red sails that just popped up on the horizon over there. It seemed to bob about in the waves for a minute or two, almost like it was waiting for me to notice it. And then I thought I saw…” Ella hesitated again.
“Saw what?” I pressed eagerly.
Ella took a deep breath, as though she needed to gird herself for the confession. “Well, I thought I saw him standing on the prow, sort of silhouetted against the sunset.”
“Him?” I repeated uncertainly. “Who do you mean?”
“Oh, just someone I used to know,” said Ella quickly.
I didn’t say anything but kept my eyes fixed on her with an expectant gaze that I knew she couldn’t ignore for long.
Sure enough, there was another heavy sigh and then she continued, “We pretty much grew up together, childhood friends we were. It feels a bit silly to call him the love of my life but I suppose I always knew that there’d never really be anyone else for me. There was always a feeling that, whatever might happen, there was a destiny that was pulling us together.” Ella looked at me. “You know the feeling?”
I smiled somewhat noncommittally. Whatever there might be between Peter and me, I very much doubted the fates had much of a hand in it.
Ella was happy enough to take my silence for encouragement though and carried on. “And for a while we were together,” she said. “We were happy too.” Then her face darkened. “But there was a bit of bother. And… oh well, I won’t bore you with all the details of the million and one ways in which I’ve made a mess of my life. Just suffice to say that we had to part. He went one way and I went another…”
Ella drifted off for a moment, lost in memories. “I’ve more or less kept on the move ever since,” she went on, pulling herself together again. “I only really planned on staying a day or two at the Midnight Hotel. But then one evening I looked out to sea and saw him standing there in a boat.”
I peered out to the spot indicated by Ella and squinted hard. “Did you have binoculars with you?” I felt obliged to ask.
Ella shook her head.
“Well I’m sorry but then how on earth could you recognise someone all the way out there?” I demanded. “Especially when it’s getting dark.”
Ella could only shake her head again. “I don’t know but I swear it was him.”
“Alright then. So what happened next?”
“Nothing really,” replied Ella, a touch sheepishly. “The boat just sort of bobbed around on the horizon for a bit and then it disappeared back where it came from.”
“Have you seen it again since?”
“No, just that one time,” Ella conceded.
“So what now?” I asked. “You’re just going to stand around on this clifftop day and night on the off-chance it’ll come back?”
“What else can I do?” demanded Ella.
“Well if this bloke is so important to you, why don’t you get out there and look for him properly?” I suggested.
“I wouldn’t know where to start,” complained Ella despairingly. “And you don’t know what kind of trouble is lurking out there.”
“Whatever trouble there is, it’s got to be better than standing around here just waiting and hoping, isn’t it?”
Ella paused to consider this for a moment then responded with another shake of her head, a more determined shake this time. “Besides, that’s not what the signal meant,” she insisted.
“Signal? What signal?” I said.
“The way the ship bobbed about on the waves that time I was sure it was trying to send a signal to me,” said Ella.
“Really?” I said with a doubtful look.
“Really,” insisted Ella stoutly. “It was a signal that he’s coming for me. That we’ll be together again. I just need to have faith.”
Now I was unable to prevent my doubtful look from sliding into an expression of pure scepticism.
“Oh, I know it sounds crazy but I talked it over with Maia and she understood,” retorted Ella. “I know that if I wait here for him long enough he’ll show again.”
There was something in this mention of Maia, combined with the earlier mention of undefined troubles beyond the bounds of the hotel that rang disturbingly familiar. For a moment I was transported back to Henry James’s confession on the terrace. Ella’s avowal of faith in a half-glimpsed figure on the horizon seemed every bit as tenuous as James’s investment in a woman he’d barely shared a dozen words with but in both cases they seemed to feel a pull that was proof against any logical argument.
Ella was watching me sharply, awaiting my response. Not wanting to offend, I merely remarked as casually as I could, “It sounds a bit unlikely if you ask me.”
“I didn’t expect you to understand,” said Ella defensively.
“It’s not that I don’t want to,” I insisted. “But you’re not really giving me an awful lot to go on.”
“Well, I’m afraid it’s all I have,” replied Ella rather sadly. And she turned her gaze back out to sea.
We stood there a little while longer, watching the sun slowly sink out of view, but the conversation had now irrevocably faltered and I couldn’t find any words to bring it back to life. When, with the darkness rapidly closing in on us, I finally suggested it might be time to head back to the hotel, Ella insisted on remaining out on the clifftop a little longer, as though she could thereby re-claim the spot as hers and hers alone.
So I said goodbye and left her peering resolutely out into the gloom. As I strolled back alone along the cliff path I turned our talk over in my mind, trying to disentangle the twisted stories of Ella and Henry James. Both seemed to have found a form of refuge at the Midnight Hotel, yet was there not also an element of the gilded cage about their remaining here? I couldn’t help thinking that both of them seemed to have become trapped, hemmed in by a fear of the landscape outside and held fast by blind faith in a vague hope of something they had long dreamed of.
And what was Maia’s role in all of this? She merited only the briefest of mentions in each story and yet I couldn’t help thinking that she was somehow key to both Ella’s and Henry James’s predicaments. Was she really motivated by nothing other than a concern for her guests’ well-being? On the face of it, it seemed absurd to think ill of our genial hostess but there were occasions where I sensed the merest hint of something else going on beneath that amiable exterior. Whatever it was, I couldn’t quite shake the suspicion that there had been something strangely sinister lurking in the background from the moment we arrived at the Midnight Hotel. And until I’d figured out quite what that sinister menace was I wasn’t sure we would ever escape it.
To be continued…