Quis est iste qui uenit?
Who is this who is coming?
Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad - M.R. James
“It’s cold,” Evan says, warming his hands around a cup. The steam floats above it, drifting, dissolving.
No one answers. The foyer of the hotel is empty, his last guests signed out that morning. The cold chills him to the bone, makes his limbs ache. He’s not getting any younger. Everything in the hotel is old, the furniture, the décor, himself.
It’s far too cold, he thinks.
He leaves the reception desk, goes up the stairs to the now vacated rooms. Unlocks the doors, checks the rooms. For the most part they’re tidy, the sheets will need changed, all of them will need a hoover. He reminds himself to do it later.
He locks the door again, goes back to the foyer. His tea is cold.
It’s not supposed to be so cold in the summer.
A man arrives two days later, driving an antique of a car and dressed in black. He carries a suitcase and a stern look on his face. Evan doesn’t want to go near him. Regardless, he stands up as straight as his aching back allows, puts on his war-paint of a professional smile and arms himself in manners and courtesy. He opens the register book, pen at the ready.
“Good afternoon, sir,” he greets him, “Is it a room you’re after?”
The man looks around the hotel, nods. Doesn’t say a word.
“Very good. How long for?”
“Two weeks. Is this acceptable?” the man says.
While the question strikes him as odd, he says nothing of it. He nods. “Very much so, sir. You have the pick of the building, everyone else finished their stays a couple of days ago.”
The man cocks his head to the side. “Why?”
This question takes Evan off-guard. “Why what? Why did they leave?”
Evan shrugs. “Various reasons, things came up at home, their holiday was over.” He finishes writing in the register book, turns it toward the man. “If you’ll just sign here, Mr…”
“Abrams. Landon Abrams.” He leans over to sign his name, finishes and picks up his suitcase. “Which room am I in?”
Evan has already turned to the lines of hooks with keys on them. He picks one, turns back and hands it to the man. “You’re in room fifteen. Let me get your case for you sir, and I’ll show you the way.”
The man, Landon, frowns at him, briefly putting the case down on the floor. “You are old.”
Evan can’t help but raise an eyebrow. “You noticed. Old or not, I’ll take your bag up to the room for you.”
Landon shakes his head. “No. You are old. I will take my case. You need only lead the way for me.”
He doesn’t argue. He steps back and Landon lifts it up, waits for Evan to take him to the room. Evan doesn’t need to be told twice.
On the way up, he can feel Landon watching him. The stairs have become a struggle, particularly recently. More than once does he stop to catch his breath and his back aches in protest. Landon stops too, waits for him, then continues up the stairs. Evan leads him to the room, unlocks the door then steps out of the way to let him in. Landon sets his case down and goes straight for the window.
“Is this the scenic view I read about?” he asks, his back to him.
He nods. “Indeed it is. You have a lovely view of the Welsh coast, right along the beach there. Perfect for walks, family picnics and there is plenty to see and do around the town, despite its small size.”
By this point, Landon has turned around and is frowning at him “Stop. Don’t parrot your brochure back at me. What is it really like?” He turns back to the window.
Evan joins him at the window. “Quiet. Desolate. No one ever comes here, even in the peak season. The guests that have just left, that was the most we’ll have during the entire year.”
“Ten, in total. There’s thirty rooms available in this old house.” Evan turns away, leans on the wall next to the window. “It’s never been full to capacity, not in the time I’ve been here.”
Landon glances to him. “How long has that been?”
Evan snorts, lowers his gaze. “Twenty years.”
Landon repeats his earlier sentence, quieter this time, “You are very old.”
Evan leaves the room without another word, struggles back down the stairs and returns to his post at the reception desk.
The rest of the day passes and not once does he see Landon Abrams again. It is the evening, the hotel silent, foreboding. It always has been when it is empty. Evan retrieves a menu from behind the desk and makes his way up the dreaded staircase. He slides the menu under the door and as he leaves, the door opens.
“What is this?” Landon asks, the laminated menu in his hand, pointed at him like a gun.
“Breakfast menu, so you can make up your mind overnight for what you want,” Evan tells him. “Is this not acceptable to you?”
The question seems to take him aback and he shakes his head. “No, it is perfectly acceptable. My apologies.”
Evan grunts, waves his hand and the apologies offered away. “Pick something for the morning, let me know when you come down.” He turns away, makes his way back to the stairs. The door is shut behind him and it surprises him when he hears Landon follow in his wake.
“Do you need some help back down?” Landon says, gesturing to the large and winding staircase.
Evan looks at it, his back – always his back – aching at the thought of going down them once more. His knees too give a twinge of agreement and in the end, he agrees, letting Landon take his elbow and most of his weight when they descend the staircase. They reach the bottom and Landon says not a word. He turns, walks back up the stairs, with a grace that Evan envies. Evan turns away, does the last checks of the hotel for the night and carefully manoeuvres himself into bed.
Morning comes, cold and uninviting. Evan shivers and pulls the extra blankets and duvet tighter around himself.
It shouldn’t be this cold in the summer.
It’s six in the morning. He gets up, showers, dresses and heads to the kitchen. He switches on the stoves, retrieves eggs, bacon, bread, from the cupboards and fridge, then waits for his one and only guest to arrive.
Landon comes down at exactly half past six. He takes a table at the window, a newspaper lying in front of him. Evan approaches, clears his throat, loud enough to let Landon know he’s there but not enough to be rude. Landon looks up from the paper, folds it away entirely.
“Have you decided on your breakfast?” Evan asks, notebook and pen in his hand.
Landon glances to it. “Why do you need that if I’m the only one staying here?”
Evan looks down at it, closes it, puts it back in his pocket. “It’s habit, I suppose. There’s usually more than this staying here.”
“And yet not enough to fill the hotel?”
Evan shakes his head. “Barely enough to make a profit, to be quite honest with you.” He makes a small grunt then shakes his head again. “That’s not what I’m here to talk about, I’m here to make your breakfast.”
Landon shrugs and pulls out the menu from behind the newspaper. “Cereal first, I shall have. Then a full English, with coffee.”
“Long drive from yesterday?”
Landon raises an eyebrow. “Perhaps. What has that got to do with anything?”
“I thought it might’ve…” he trails off. “Never mind. I’ll get that out to you.” He walks away, he can feel Landon’s gaze upon him. It takes all he has not to look back round to the man. He stops in the kitchen, catches his breath and prepares the breakfast.
He heads back out, bringing Landon the cereal, coffee, a jug of milk and pot of sugar all laid out on the tray. Landon studies him.
“You’ve been here a long time,” he says.
Evan shrugs, winces when his shoulder aches. “Like I said, twenty years now. The wife and I bought it. Poured our life savings into it, thought it would be our retirement. Ended up we worked harder on this place than what we ever did in our day jobs.”
Landon tilts his head. “Where is your wife?”
Evan stops, swallows hard. “She’s been dead ten years.” He takes a deep breath, swallows again, adds under his breath, “I miss her.”
There is a look on Landon’s face that Evan would swear blind was guilt. He doesn’t look at him, pours the milk onto the cereal and heaps a spoonful of sugar into the coffee. Evan returns to the kitchen and serves the rest of Landon’s breakfast in silence.
Evan stays at the reception, like a watchman, guarding the entrance. His tea has long since gone cold, he hasn’t bothered to check it. His one and only guest has already came and went, disappearing into his room. His eyes feel heavy. He rubs them, closes them tightly then opens them. There’s a dark shape standing in the doorway. He looks over to it, rubs his eyes again. Still the shape stands there.
“Can I help you?” he calls.
“Who are you talking to, Mr Peters?” Landon appears from the corner of his eye.
“No one. I don’t think I slept enough last night,” he answers, throws a last glance to the doorway. “Now, what can I do for you?”
“If there is plenty to do and see, I wish to do so and see it. Where are the popular attractions?” Landon says. He fishes a brochure from the rack and opens it out on the desk.
Evan turns it around to face him and leans over it. He frowns, squints at it, then curses. “I’ll need to find my glasses.” He straightens himself up with a groan. “Damn this old age. Give me just a moment Mr Abrams.” He retreats to the pigeon-hole shelves at the back wall, muttering all the way. He finds them in the back, in the last shelf he looks on. He can’t remember when he put them there or why. Regardless, he takes them from the shelf and returns to the desk.
“Not that I mean to offend you, but you don’t look much like a fairground type of person,” he says, glancing over the brochure. “There’s the beach, of course. Nice scenic walk if you feel like it, some shops in the town. That’s only half an hour away.” He folds up the brochure and hands it back. “It’s lying. People come here when they want to get away from everything, they don’t come here for the ‘attractions’.” He takes his glasses off, rubs his eyes. “What would suit you, Mr Abrams, is the town and the beach, but not much else.”
Landon nods. “I believe I’ll explore the town then, Mr Peters. It should prove interesting.” He goes to the door, picks a hat from the coat stand that Evan didn’t even notice – perhaps that was his figure at the door – and leaves the hotel. He doesn’t return till hours later, leaves the hat on the coat stand and nods a greeting to him. Evan nods back when he notices Landon has returned. In this time Landon waits for an acknowledgement and when he receives it, it is only then that he goes up the stairs to his room.
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