Sunday, October 31, 2010

Graveyard Shift

    I work nights at a hotel.  It’s not an old hotel.  Not one of those hotels where the ghosts of dead housekeepers shuffle down empty hallways at two in the morning, and certainly not one of those secluded Western highway stops where guests check-in only to find a spectre sleeping in their bed.  No, I work at a new hotel--no more than thirteen years old, and renovated at least twice in that time--located in a small, Midwestern truck-stop town.
    But I think we can all admit that it doesn’t take a place being old to make it creepy during the night time.  All it really takes is a large amount of solitude mixed in with the odd, irregular noise.  Throw in a cold winter’s night and the recipe is more than complete.
    This is where I found myself one December evening some years ago.  The hotel was quieter than usual, which I believe would make it what is called “deathly quiet.”  We had no more than eight rooms sold, and I had heard from none of them the entire night.
    Now, for the sake of honesty, I must admit, I had been reading the more ghost oriented Christmas tales of Charles Dickens that night (“The Sexton and the Goblin” and all that) as well as drinking an over-abundance of tea to keep myself awake.  Deeply packed into the corner of the front desk office, sitting in an armchair, I could see all the comings and goings of the front lobby through the large glass doors that connect it to my position.  Lights from the highway reflected off the relatively untouched and fresh fallen snow outside the window just beside me, causing shadows to glide across the walls.
    Some might say it was the Victorian prose I engorged upon, while others might blame the heavy cardigan I’d wrapped myself in, but whatever the cause, it was not long before my chin was coming within close proximity to my chest and then back up to it’s rightful position.  Needless to say, I was beginning to contemplate switching from tea to coffee when an alarm went off, jerking me out of my repose and signaling the time to brew more coffee.  Depending on the hotel, this time is generally 3:00 AM to 4:00, and for my preference, I always went with the earliest.  I gathered my stack of six carefully folded receipts (two rooms were stay-overs) and replaced them with my book.
    Going under the balcony and into a dark, wide-open room interspersed with tables, one finds the coffee sitting inside a deeper alcove next to the kitchen.  Due to our ridiculously cheap owner, the lights were not aloud to be turned on until 6:00, or 5:00 if a guest came down early, giving the room a cave-like feel most of the night.  It was into the cave that I ventured briefly to begin the percolations, and then out again to deliver the receipts.
    Some thing about the third floor of this hotel had always given me a foreboding on the especially quiet nights.  The type of feeling that makes one look behind himself twice or thrice before proceeding.  To be honest, I sometimes think this feeling came from the window at the end of the hall.  It just so happened that one of my receipts belonged to a room on the farthest end of this floor.  Walking down the hallway I could see my ghostly reflection in the window walking towards me, a sight which seen during the day--if it could be seen then--would have given me no sense of the unreal.  Things always do seem different during the night, however, and the cold, tired look of my own face at a distance, staring into me, was enough to unnerve me.
    I reached the end of the hallway, slid the receipt under the door, and gave a quick glance down the hallway before I escaped into the stairwell.  What caught my eye arrested my breath: a figure in a long, white dress walking slowly down the hall.  From the distance--she was at the opposite end--the visage was that of an short, old woman.  Now, being the practical man that I am, I did not stare or stop in my movements.  I assured myself that she was simply a guest going to her room and nothing more.  Now, this was rather sane of me to say, despite the fact that there was only one room, with one bed, occupied on that floor, and it was a man’s name on the folio.  Still, there’s nothing to limit a guest from any other floor to roam the halls.  All the while, my steps were hurried, which was for no other reason than that I wanted to finish brewing the coffee and get back to my reading.
    Once downstairs, I saw there were no guests in the lobby, so it was back into the cave and straightway to the kitchen.  I poured myself a glass of the freshly brewed coffee and set the decaf up as next in line.  I was stirring in sugar when I admitted to myself that I was hiding in the kitchen.  It was not common for me to wait in there for the coffee to finish, but tonight, I felt a keen interest in watching these pots fill.  I called myself a coward, and grabbing the freshly made pot, I ventured out to set it on the table.
    I glanced around the room and saw no one.  It would be a lie to say I did not let out a sigh of relief, but upon turning around I saw the vision I’d beheld on the third floor.  This time, she was standing right before me.  What I’d taken for a white dress was nothing more than a nightshirt, which hung loosely over he decrepit body.  Her hair was as white as the shirt and thinning enough to reveal her scalp.  She lifted both her hands, the bone barely covered by skin, and seemed to implore me with her eyes--those eyes, seeming to bulge from her sunken face.  “Help me,” she said in a trembling, feeble voice.
    I was taken aback, but composed myself as well as I could to ask her what she needed.  She simply repeated herself.  Her voice seemed to tremble more with the second volley.  I asked her what her room number was, but again I got the same answer.  My heart raced, but believing--knowing--this was merely an old woman who’d lost her way in the halls, I asked her to meet me at the front desk, where I’d find her room.  As I walked away, I still heard her repeating her plea, though she only mumbled the words.
    We are supposed to make a record of any infirm or elderly guests who may need help in case of emergencies such as fire or whatnot, but it seems someone forgot to make that list that night.  I can’t hold it against them.  I seldom remembered to do it myself.  I checked the guest folios for any notes, but finding none I could only find recourse in applying myself to the old woman again.  She had not followed me to the front desk, and so with a somewhat trembling heart, I went to meet her in the breakfast area.
    Opening the doors, I was quite shocked to see no one in the spot I had left her.  I turned on the lights and looked into the alcove.  No one there.  I checked the kitchen, and it too was empty.  I hurried out into the hall, but both sides were empty.  I looked in every room I thought she might have gotten into, and went on every floor--even the dreaded third floor.  There was no sign of her.
    I sat myself down at a table in the breakfast area and looked out the glass wall, onto the empty field that was behind the hotel.  It was lit up by the starlight reflecting off the snow, and gave off a eerie glow.  Absent-mindedly I drank my coffee, bracing myself for the return of the “spectre,” as I began to call her in my mind.  After about twenty minutes, I went back to my work.  The coffee was made and the breakfast set up, and I was once again seated, reading over a book, though not those same type of stories as before.  By this point I could laugh at the situation, and it wasn’t much longer when our breakfast person showed up.  I decided to omit the story from her.
    In another hour my replacement arrived.  I gave him the short explanation of the events of the night--namely that nothing exciting happened, barring the one guest who seemed to have forgotten what room she was in.  I went home and slept fairly well in the daylight.  No nightmares to disturb my mind, and upon waking I thought very little of the previous night.  It was not until I went in for my shift that night that I found out what really happened the night before.
    No elderly lady fitting that description checked-out that morning--well, not in the sense that us hotel employees would mean--but around noon, when housekeeping went to clean the rooms, in one room they found her corpse, lying, distorted, next to her bed.  I only know what the front desk manager told me, but according to her, the paramedics said she had convulsions in her sleep, fell out of bed, and died on the floor.  They said the convulsions must’ve lasted at least twenty to thirty minutes, and it was a very painful death.  The real shame was that if someone had been staying with her or if someone could’ve just gotten her her medicine, and gotten her to a hospital, she likely would’ve lived.  They placed the time of death shortly before 4:00 AM.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

George Meredith

George Meredith was the progeny of navel outfitters in Portsmouth.  His mother died when he was five, and his father went into bankruptcy when he was ten.  He was schooled in Neuwied, German, which he went to at the age of fourteen.  He returned to England at the age of sixteen and was then apprenticed to a London lawyer.  It was not to his taste, and he soon left the law for journalism.  He began to write poetry at this time.  In 1849 he married the widow Mary Nicolls, daughter of satirical novelist Thomas Love Peacock.  Mary was nine years his senior.  The marriage ended badly when, in 1858, Mary abandoned her husband and five-year-old son.  This incident would provide Meredith with the inspiration to write his third novel The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, which was his first important novel.  It also served as inspiration for his book of poetry Modern Love.  He wrote nineteen novels, the best known being Rhoda Fleming, The Adventures of Harry Richmond, The Egoist, and Diana of the Crossways.  In his later life, he received many honors.  He became President of the Society of British Authors, a position formally held by Alfred Tennyson, and in 1905 was made a member of the Order of Merit by Edward VII.  He died in 1909 at his home at Box Hill, Dorking.
His income as an author being uncertain, he added to it by being a publisher's reader.  He became highly influential due to the important publishing house of Chapman and Hall.  He became friends with many members of the literary world, including Algernon Charles Swinburne, Leslie Stephen, William and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Robert Louis Stevenson, George Gissing, and J.M. Barrie.  He was honored by contemporary writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the Holmes story The Boscombe Valley Mystery, when Holmes says to Watson, "And now let us talk about George Meredith, if you please, and leave all minor matters until to-morrow."  Oscar Wilde said of him, "Ah, Meredith!  Who can define him?  His style is chaos illuminated by flashes of lightning."