There were lions lying incongruously at the foot of the stairs. The staircase, fifty feet broad at the base, arched and narrowed at the top like the train of a lady's gown reproduced in local rock. The steps were of blackened sandstone which had weathered to expose a robust oval grain, and the same acid rain had etched the concrete lions, but these having no inner texture, the lions had merely weathered into grinning doglike caricatures. At the top of the stairs there were red-painted doors, glossy and chipped, inset with windows frosted with leaves and berries. It seemed rather a small entrance for such a magnificent red-brick Victorian edifice, five storeys tall and – I determined later when I could get far enough back to see the extent of it – almost ten windows long and four deep. I estimated that Hotel Aperio was larger than 150 rooms.
As an alternative to the stairs, one could go up the wheelchair access ramp, cheaply and latterly introduced at the side of the stairs and far too steep, which made the hotel's formerly grand entrance look like a that of a crazy municipal hospital. I went up the ramp, dragging sullen luggage behind me and almost toppling backwards as my high heels met the unnatural pitch. Inside the double doors, the lobby was the size of a generous Punch and Judy Show, and a man sat behind a tinseled hatch, watching television on a portable about the size of a toaster, which despite its diminutive size loomed large on the cluttered counter. I rang his bell, a classic desktop bell, silver and with a commanding ding. Although he had seen me, he ignored me until he heard the ding, acting out his own part perfectly. One assumed he had plenty of chance to practice over the years.
"Can I help you?"
"I have a reservation," I said, suddenly aware that I had to play my part too and this would take time and human interaction energy I didn't have, "under the name Hopwood."
"Annie Hopwood," he said. I expected him to lick a pencil and write me down in a blue-ruled notebook, but he didn't bother. Perhaps the formalities would not be as excruciating as I thought. "Thirty six." He handed me a small metal key attached to a piece of two by four almost a foot long and into which someone had pokerworked the words '36 Hotel Aperio'.
"That's it," he said. "Dinner's at six."
That was two hours away. "What's for dinner?"
"Steak and Kidney Pie with mushrooms and petites pommes de terre, or Duck à l'Orange followed by syllabub or treacle sponge. Variety of fine cheeses served from our cheese board." He turned to flick a switch, illuminating a tall nylon Christmas tree behind me decorated with angels, trumpets and silver spheres. "I forgot. Sorry. You're the first."
I left my luggage outside his little grotto and walked back out into the wintry air of Harmsby. The hotel was at the top of the hill – a wonderful sea view – and set in grounds with neatly trimmed privets and holly fences surrounding green lawns. To the north, crazy golf, to the south, an amusement park, thoroughly and firmly closed for the winter. The squat tower of the helter-skelter seemed like a landlocked parody of the lighthouse behind me, a couple of miles out to sea. I turned to look at the water. Grey waves slammed against the promenade a couple of hundred feet below. I walked through the gap in the privet and gripped the tubular iron handrails of the long steps that led down into the town. I had no need to worry. The salt spray from the sea had soaked the stairs and there was no ice, just slippery pools. The steps eventually delivered me to Prince Regent Street, the main tourist road leading to the promenade. Christmas decorations of the largest and most florid kind were suspended over the street on cables at frequent intervals and the light poles were hung with great swag bows, candy canes the size of Mini Coopers and pennants featuring laughing Santas. Gipsy Rose Lee (who must inhabit a body at every seaside resort in Britain – one wonders how she operates them all) had a salon there, of course, along with Psychic Reading, which appeared to be run by a hippy, all paisley pattern curtains and strong whiff of joss sticks, and Pandit, who appeared to be an Indian hippy, statue of Ganesha in the window and an equally strong aroma of joss sticks. Pandit was closed for Diwali, little electric replicas of oil lamps burning in his window, but Gipsy Rose and Psychic Reading both had Christmas lights lit and Open signs on their wooden doors. The narrow street twisted on down to the promenade.
It was getting dark and the Christmas illuminations gained in prominence, beginning to look like Spielberg motherships buzzing the main strip. The chill intensified as the cold wind from the North Sea blew in, whipping white caps on the dark swells narrowly visible below the end of the street. The wind smelled of herrings and bladderwrack, driving out the common scents of fish and chips, vinegar and candy floss. Fortune tellers had given way to postcard shops and those selling swimming costumes, buckets and spades and flippers. I looked at those and shivered, pulling my fur collar up around my freezing ears and wishing I'd brought a hat. At the foot of Prince Regent Street was the daddy of all fish and chip shops, its wide glass frontage bright and yellow against the now dark seafront.
There was a sandwich board outside the open front door, and written on it in chalk were the specials:
Eel pie, mash and green liquor
Breaded Flounce fillets with Izvestia (4 oz.)
Deep Fried Grunion
Grilled Parp with Potatoes Columbine
And for international flair, Oyster Po'boy and Redneck Crayfish in Stuffed Sauce.
My stomach rumbled at the smell of frying fish. Potheby's seated over 80, and tonight, Christmas Eve, only six of the tables were occupied, two by groups of tourists with cameras and sou'westers, arguing over maps of the attractions, one by a grizzled old man with hollow eyes and a plate of breaded squid, and three by teenagers, drinking beer and drowning their cod and chips in vinegar. They wore short jackets and tight jeans, and would undoubtedly freeze from fashion when they eventually ventured out.
Past the corner occupied by Potheby's was the main coast road, four lanes of traffic currently jam packed with people who just had to get somewhere on Christmas Eve. I wondered why they hadn't set off earlier. Maybe they were just cruising? I pressed the button for the little green man and crossed over to the promenade. The black stone sea wall was topped with an iron bar at chest height, and I gripped it to lean over and look down. The tide was in, the restless sea chewing at the wall twenty feet below. I'd been here when the waves came crashing over the wall like wild geysers, and today's suck and bite and roil seemed gentle in comparison, the sea wall and the sea like lovers rather than the violent adversaries they became in a storm. In the distance, the lighthouse flashed but it was too dark to see any boats or wildlife. The burnt-out pier was somewhere in that direction also, but without its gay lights and bingo signs, it was invisible at night.
Back at Hotel Aperio I walked across the tiny lobby, adjusting my step to the floor, which, under the cheerful red carpet whose big peony flowers threatened to resolve into glowering devil faces like a Rorschach test, was a domed, swayback collection of creaky floorboards. But it was barely ten paces long – after that I was beyond the flashing tree, through a small scullery door and facing a choice of dark cold corridor labeled toilets or a wooden staircase promising, according to the sign on the wall, 'Rooms'. I chose the latter. The Wheelchair Access Fairy had not visited this part of the hotel and I wondered if there were a lift.
Room 36 was on the first floor, at the end of a long corridor with more threadbare devil carpet. My bags were in there, and the window had been helpfully thrown open to air it out, which meant that the temperature hovered around freezing. A steam radiator clanked and radiated under the window, but of course the heat from it was rising straight outside. There was a single bed; a table with a green telephone handset; a large cathode ray tube TV; a picture of Don Quixote tilting at a windmill; a small porcelain sink with a red tap and a blue tap. That was about it for the room – the toilets were down the corridor and one assumed that at least one bath was available somewhere nearby. A card on the phone gave the charge rate (outrageous) and a small booklet beside it contained a map of the hotel. The dining room, it said, was also on the first floor, some distance away. I brushed my teeth and changed (hurriedly, given the frigid room) into something I hoped was suitably festive, and walked down the creaky corridor to the dining room.
I heard it well before I got to it. It was abuzz. This was the first indication that anyone else was spending Christmas at the hotel; it seemed there were a lot of them and they were already drunk. Inside, whole families were wearing festive hats, drinking Cognac or whisky sodas and eating a variety of fine cheeses from the cheese board – choosing from Cheddar, Cheshire, Brie and Camembert, some of which were preloaded on cocktail sticks with silverskin onions. Kids surrounded a trough of nuts. There were eight children and only two nutcrackers, which didn't slow anyone down as the older kids could all crack nuts in their hands. The younger kids chewing on brazil nuts seemed like they'd choke soon, which would at least reduce the noise level. Satsuma skins and Blackjack wrappers carpeted a wide area around the trough like ejecta from a meteorite impact. One of the children, a bony tween girl, was surrounded with an almost tangible aura of privilege. She hogged the nutcrackers and looked on the wild pack with the sort of prideful class disdain a Wing Commander displays in a war film.
"What'll you have, love? " said a voice from the tiny bar. Framed by dusty glasses hung upside down on a rack and entwined with silver tinsel, the barmaid was calling me. A dead string of miniature Christmas lights and two live strings ran over the bar like electric ivy, strangling the beer pumps and disappearing into dark corners.
I looked over the bottles. "Whisky soda." Why not? It did the trick. "Who is that girl? The one with her hand on her hip?"
"Debbie Warwick. Harry Warwick's daughter."
Well, that explained the halo surrounding her. Warwick was the most famous county cricketer of his generation. Clearly the adults in the room were generating some form of awed in-the-presence-of-the-famous field that made her glow with meaning.
"Are you coming to the fancy dress competition tomorrow, love?"
I nodded. Highlight of the holiday. "My costume's in my bag."
She pushed a glass under the optic for whisky and then squirted soda into it from a sort of garden hose attachment tangled in the ivy lights. I took it over to the tables where a beery couple from Halifax immediately befriended me and started in on their life stories, illustrated with photographs they just happened to have along with them. I'd forgotten to order in advance and by the time I got round to it there was no duck left – and I was left with the steak and kidney pie option. It came with a crust apparently formed of indurated laterite, and the petite pommes de terre had been kidnapped and replaced by reconstituted powdered mashed potatoes, part of which had not reconstituted correctly, leaving little surprise cavities of dry white starch. Those with duck fared no better as they seemed to have half a mostly raw duck covered with a thick and chemical-tasting bright orange sauce that had clearly never seen the inside of an orange grove. Still – open bar. I had another half dozen whiskies while Appie and Terry – from Halifax – told me jokes in broad Yorkshire tones.
"Terry'll be comin' as that Marilyn Monroe tomorrow, won't ta?" Appie said, clapping him on the shoulder.
I did a double take.
"T'fancy dress do. He has that dress from t'grate picture."
He also had black beetling brows and a beer belly.
"Ah sed ter 'im, all t'men'll be comin' in drag. Tha should pick summat that'd stand out. Dress up as, er…"
"A bee?" I said brightly, then wondered why I was thinking about bees.
"Aye, a bee. That'd be reight." She poked Terry. "Sitha!"
"The men all dress in drag for fancy dress?"
"Aye, we've bin before. Men love a chance to get into a pair of tights, dontcha, love, and I don't mean it that way." She cackled. He laughed, a deep un-Monroe booming laugh.
I got up to go.
"Don't leave!" the barmaid said. "We're having a psychic reading at ten. The famous chap from the seafront. He does the Tarot." She made it rhyme with carrot. "He'll tell you the secret to finding a husband."
I left, floating past the crew of fighting children, past the luminescent Famous Child, finding myself at a lift (so that's where it was) and then walking in the biting frozen wind down the stairs, onto Prince Regent Street and heading for the restaurants, following the smell of British cooking. Each one had a menu in the window and each one was less appetizing than the last. Ratatouille, for instance – one suspected they did not make it with fresh rat as long as frozen rat was available. Bubble and squeak, which was off-putting enough in name only, without considering what small animals it might contain. Desserts included Spotted Dick and Blancmange. There was Ham Megronigle and Beef Otitis, Game and Punchmep. A pub with a big menu board offering its specials: Brown Trouse with maggage and tyvek. Orb pie. Pantfortheram. Over the road was a high-class looking place with a little menu-podium outside surrounded by little flashing santas and with a drawing of a coach and four atop the creamy card of the menu. In beautiful print it offered classical country meals I'd never heard of. Mousy Pie with Flagellante and Dromcreme; Stargazy Pie; Canary Pudding with Lemon Sauce; Jam Roly Poly; Almond Flummery; Pease Pudding with Pigs' Knuckles; Beef Wellington, presumably served in its boot, as snails are served in their shells in France. Another offered Shivered Pork and Beef Shepherd's Pie, with an option on Gooseberry Fool. My home town, which served mostly chicken fried rice with curry sauce, seemed so far away and so desirable. I already missed my nice warm bed and grumpy cat.
All the way along I wondered about my Christmas holiday. Tomorrow I would be required to eat turkey and brussels sprouts surrounded by nut-covered children and awed by the Famous Child. Afterwards, I would have to attend a fancy dress competition for which I had made the terrible mistake, I now realized, of bringing a Catwoman costume, which would no doubt magnify the sign I apparently wore on my forehead that says "in need of a husband". And I would be surrounded by men reading the now-flashing and revolving giant sign while they were dressed as Marilyn Monroe and Little Red Riding Hood. It occurred to me with a shock that I might meet some male Catwoman, which would doom me to hang out with him and possibly engage in drunk hotel sex of the very worst kind.
In the end I went to Potheby's and had a saveloy deep fried in batter and a lot of chips stuffed into a hollowed-out loaf, which the server told me was called a chip butty. I poured tomato ketchup into it and squished it a bit and it was great.