So many people come to Hastings to die: it's something of a tradition. We don't necessarily think of it in those terms at the time, but that's what we do. It's like the story of the elephants' graveyard, but with the elephants replaced by aged, lonely and distressed gentlefolk; white elephants, I suppose.
When my husband, Harold, passed on I put myself through the normal grieving process, surrounded by comforting friends and family. It was all very civilised, but I couldn't abide it. The problem was that I was a fraud. My husband and I had weathered almost fifty years of marriage, but had hated each other quietly for most of the latter half of it. Neither of us ever tried to understand or explain why. We found it easier to stay together, for financial reasons and to preserve appearances. Oh yes, and the old stand-by: for the sake of the children. Love and companionship no longer mattered. I would like to think our children never knew.
Our eldest son, Michael, offered to take me in, worried that a woman of my age was somehow incapable of living on her own. I discovered a vein of independence in myself that must have lain dormant since the days of the war and my youth and declined, announcing that I would be moving to Hastings. I suppose if I were to be truly honest I would have to say the real reason was that I could no longer take all the kind words and sympathy: the strain of the hypocrisy would, I fear, have robbed me of my few remaining years.
I had not taken into account Harold's pension being reduced after his death; when combined with my state pension it allowed me to survive, barely, by living in what only charity would forbid describing as a flop-house. The Atlantic Hotel was once a grand old Victorian building, gutted in the 1950s and divided up into low-rent rooms little larger that gaol cells. It is filled with old men and women, many with stories not too dissimilar to mine. Its corridors have a smell of urine and death that no disinfectant will ever shift.
It was there that I met Mr. Rae.
He arrived on a wet November afternoon. I was sitting in the day room, trying to ignore the mindless Australian soap opera that so many of the residents followed with a will missing from the rest of their lives. I remember sitting in the lumpy old armchair I favour for its view out the window and watching him getting out of the taxi.
From a distance he looked impossibly old. His posture was stooped in a manner I had learned to associate with chronic osteoarthritis. His body must have been very thin, as his clothes looked several sizes too large, as if he had lost a lot of weight and not had the money to buy a new wardrobe. I remember wondering if he had cancer.
Despite his apparent frailty he brought his bags into the hotel himself. All he had was a large, cheap-looking suitcase and an odd little bag that looked a bit like a misshapen and oversized Gladstone bag. I would later find out from one of the other residents, who had seen one before, that it was designed to carry bowling ball, as used in ten-pin bowling.
I pictured Mr. Rae more as the lawn bowls sort.
He was placed in the room next to mine - number 23. Mrs. Wilson, the room's previous occupant, had succumbed to a fatal bowel blockage a little over a week previously. It had taken most of the intervening period for the hotel's cleaner to make the room habitable again.
I met Mr. Rae properly at dinner. The only spare seats in the dining room were the three others at my table. In my last years with Harold I must have forgotten how to be sociable, our animosity being my only real human contact.
He sat down without asking permission. When I glanced up from my soup he flushed suddenly and said: "Sorry. Do you mind?" His voice was quiet and unsure. I shook my head and went back to my meal. It had taken me a moment to recognise him as the same man I has seen coming into the hotel that afternoon. Up close he did not look quite as ancient as he had at a distance. His face, while quite haggard, was not lined as much as I would have expected from a man of his age.
The waitress, a young girl with the most alarming acne I can remember seeing, brought Mr. Rae a plate of soup. He looked down at it with confusion. "Don't they ask us what we want?" he whispered.
I tried to smile. "If you want choice, there are a number of reasonably good restaurants within a short walk of the hotel. If you want economy, then you take what you are given."
He tasted the soup and grimaced. "Mulligatawny?" he asked.
"Supposedly. I think they just heat up their leftover ox-tail and add some curry powder."
He took another spoonful, slurping loudly. One learns to tolerate such ill manners when one is surrounded by old people. "Oh well," he said, "I suppose I have to keep my strength up."
Between our waitress taking our bowls away and coming back with a main course he introduced himself. "James Rae," he said, extending a hand awkwardly across the table.
I shook the offered hand gently, for fear of breaking something in that fragile frame of his. "Well, Mr. Rae, welcome to the Atlantic. I'm Dorothy Smith. My family call me Dotty, but I'd rather you didn't. I've never really liked it."
He laughed politely, but it turned to coughing. He doubled up, his coughing getting wetter and louder. It passed none too quickly and when he straightened up he was red faced with exertion and embarrassment. "I'm sorry," he said. "I'm not quite as healthy as I once was."
There was a long, awkward silence. I struggled to remember how people made small talk. "Are you a widower?" I asked. Not the most delicate icebreaker, but I thought it might help to establish some common ground between us.
His reaction, however, was not what I expected. A look of unbearable pain passed across his face. "Not exactly," he said.
I waited for some elaboration. When it was apparent that none was forthcoming I ventured: "Not exactly? What an odd answer. Surely one is either or widower or not." I immediately regretted the way my question sounded. My manners were definitely not what they once had been.
He looked even more uncomfortable. "My wife is very ill. She has not been able to move or talk to me for some time."
"I'm so sorry. My husband died after a stroke. Is your wife in a local hospital? It's just that I..." I was rescued from the situation by the waitress bringing our main courses. The plates held a meagre portion of thinly sliced beef, mashed potatoes and boiled cabbage. The gravy was thin and had a colour that brought comparisons to my mind I would sooner have left outside it.
"It's a knife meal tonight, at least," I said after the first mouthful.
Mr. Rae looked at me, puzzled. "Knife meal?"
"There was a three week period not long ago during which I never once had to use a knife during a meal here. Some I could have eaten with a straw. They do things with minced beef that make it little more than baby food. Since then I've divided the meals up into knife and knifeless. This, happily, is a knife meal. It almost makes it worth having false teeth.""
And for the first time I saw Mr. Rae smile. He had a lovely smile.
As I have got older I have discovered I need less and less sleep. When I was young I was a prodigious sleeper, taking weekends as an opportunity for lie-ins that were nothing short of decadent. Now it is a good night if I sleep for more than four hours. The only compensation is that I can lie in bed reading for hours on end.
I surprised my family some years back by developing a taste for horror stories. I had been brought up reading respectable books: Jane Austen, Dickens, the Brontes. Now, in the eccentricity allowed to me by age, I revel in the works of writers like Guy N. Smith, Shaun Hutson and Harry Adam Knight. The worse the prose and the greater the bloodshed the happier I am. Call it my second childhood.
That night I was sitting up reading Mr. Knight's Carnosaur. Every time I started to lose myself in the story I could hear sounds from next door, in the room now occupied by Mr. Rae. It sounded like he was talking to someone, but all I could make out was the sound of his low voice, without actually catching any of the words. I contemplated putting a tumbler up against the wall in order to make out details of the monologue, but decided in the end to respect his privacy.
He was still talking when I fell asleep.
I was up before dawn the following morning. In the British winter I find it difficult now not to be, as daybreak comes at such a ludicrously late hour. I find the gloom of our winters insufferable. I was born in the south of India, not long before the terminal decline of the empire, and have never really come to terms with the shifting sunrises and sunsets of British seasons. They always seem unnecessarily extreme.
After breakfast I have made it my habit to take a walk along the waterfront. Even on an overcast day like this one I find it inspiring to look out at the vast grey expanse of the Channel. It gives me a sense of proportion.
The morning was a bit too cold for my old bones and I was starting to head back to the hotel when I saw a familiar hunched figure heading down towards the sea front. I wondered if I should leave him to his own thoughts, but when weighed against the possibility of passing the time until lunch avoiding watching the television I decided he could tolerate my company for a while.
"Mr. Rae," I called after his back. "Wait up." He turned and for a moment looked almost pleased to see me.
"Ah, Mrs. Smith! Another one who can't stand being cooped up all day, then?"
As I got closer I realised that in natural light, however little of it there was, he did in fact look his age. The lines I had failed to see in the gloom of the dining room were all too apparent now. His hair also looked thinner. The combination made him look at least ten years older.
"I always take a walk in the morning," I said. "I find it helps give me an appetite for lunch. Anything which helps me face that food is to be encouraged."
"Well, at the risk of ruining that appetite, may I buy you an ice cream? I fancy something sickly sweet. Just to give me energy to face the rest of the day, mind." He smiled wickedly.
I looked up at the overcast sky, feeling a slight spray of drizzle across my face. I pulled my overcoat tighter around myself. "Ice cream," I said. "Why not?"
We sat on a bench by the waterfront, eating our ice creams. They were those horrible prefabricated ones, where the cone and the wrapper are almost indistinguishable. "Thank you, Mr. Rae. I can't remember the last time a gentleman bought me an ice cream. It was probably my husband, at the Festival of Britain."
He looked puzzled. "I'm afraid you've lost me."
"You must remember the festival." I said. "In the early fifties, on the South Bank, in London; to celebrate Britain's rebirth after the war. That's when they built that ugly Royal Festival Hall building."
"Sorry," he said, "A bit before my time."
I smiled politely, humouring him. "Now that I think about it, I do remember that ice cream. I was so excited about the end of rationing. It was so nice to have food that actually tasted good."
We sat in silence for a while, finishing the ice creams. As we got up to find a rubbish bin to dispose of the wrappers I said: "Winter is a much better time for ice cream than summer. You don't have that rush to finish it before it melts." Mr. Rae nodded sagely. "As grateful as I am for your treat," I continued, "I wish they would make ice cream like they used to. It's all artificial ingredients and additives now. Don't you miss the taste of ice cream made with cream, sugar and eggs?"
"I wouldn't know. This is what I'm used to."
"If I didn't know better, Mr. Rae, I'd say your mind was failing. Your memory of the days of our youth doesn't seem to be very good. You seem to be doing it differently, at least. When others go gaga they seem to get lost in the past. You, at least, are lost in the present."
Mr. Rae stopped walking and looked at me. His eyes were moist and filled with pain. "How old would you say I am, Mrs. Smith?"
"I don't know." It seemed to be a sensitive subject so I decided to be generous in my estimate. "Seventy?"
"I'm thirty-two, Mrs. Smith. I'm thirty-two."
Of course I didn't believe him. I knew from his behaviour that he wasn't joking, so I didn't know what to make of his claim. Maybe it was some form of senile dementia after all.
As we walked back to the hotel, though, he told me his story.
"Elaine and I were married a little under two months ago. I had been working every bit of overtime I could get to save up enough money for a honeymoon we would never forget. We decided on Sri Lanka. I wish I could remember why.
"We had only just arrived in Colombo. Our plan was to hire a car at the airport and drive up to Kandy, where our first hotel reservation was. We never even made it out of the airport. You may have seen something about it on the television.
"When I heard the screaming I thought there must be some kind of terrorist attack going on. I knew the Tamil Tigers still carried out attacks from time to time. People started running blindly, trying to find exits. It was then that I noticed some of them were changing.
"It was like a painting by Bosch. Even now I can hardly find the words to describe it. There were men and women in convulsions on the ground. At least they started out as men and women. I saw one man become something out of an H P Lovecraft story, all black slime and thrashing tentacles. A child who was just ahead of me turned to chalk; as he stopped being able to run his momentum toppled him over and he smashed on the ground. I remember praying that he wouldn't change back.
"All through it there was this faint buzzing noise and these waves of what looked like silver fog. This silver kept swarming around people, devouring them and spitting out monsters. Of course I'd read the stories in the newspaper, but it wasn't until afterwards that I associated it with what happened. Doesn't that sound stupid? How could you mistake something like that?
"When it all stopped it was like I imagine the aftermath of a bomb blast would be. There were people, things, lying and crawling all around, crying and wailing with voices I could hardly believe.
"And in the middle of it all I stood there, unchanged.
"I didn't realise at first that nothing had happened to me. In all the chaos it was as if I didn't exist. My mind was filled with the sights around me. And Elaine.
"It took a little over a week before I noticed any change in myself. I had started going grey in my late twenties and it wasn't until it dominated my hair that I thought anything might be wrong. No, that's a lie. At first I thought it was the shock.
"The I noticed that I was looking haggard. I lost weight and I found my body began to ache in ways I had never experienced. Now I realise that I have been ageing about five years every week. It seems to be accelerating. I'm sure I'll be dead within the fortnight. I can feel it coming.
"Despite that I can't feel sorry for myself. It's Elaine: how could I feel sorry for myself after Elaine?"
In all this time Mr Rae's voice hardly changed from a quiet monotone, even as he described experiences more monstrous than most people could imagine. I kept wanting to interrupt him, to hold and comfort him like a frightened child. There is something about the tragedy of others that makes one feel completely helpless. It reminds us all that we are separate islands of consciousness, achieving true contact only rarely. Sadly this was not one of those times. All I could do was hold his hands and make noises of sympathy.
He kept his composure. I could see the tears struggling to form in his eyes, but they never grew more than misty. "Anyway," he said after a long pause, "I came here, to Hastings. After we returned to England I couldn't face either of our families. I know it wasn't fair on them, but with so little time left I feel like I have the right to be a little selfish. Here at least no one knows me. No one would ask any questions about a lonely old man who kept to himself. I wasn't counting on making a new friend."
I'm afraid I lack the strength Mr. Rae had shown. I started weeping: not wracking sobs, but a flow of tears that just would not stop. It is my shame to this day that after all he had told me it was him who had to comfort me.
As we walked back to the hotel I asked Mr. Rae what had happened to his wife.
"It hit her badly," he said. His words were slow and laced with pain. "Since she changed she has been little better than dead. I wonder sometimes if any of her mind is left. I don't know whether it would be worse if it were or weren't."
"Can I visit her," I asked.
"Nothing personal, Mrs. Smith, but I'd really rather not. I know you mean well, but I think if there's anything left of her she would want as few people as possible to see her. And if there isn't, what point is there?"
There was nothing I could say any more. We spent the rest of the walk in silence.
Mr. Rae retired to his room straight after we got back. He did not appear at lunchtime. After lunch I went up to my room, drained by the morning we had shared. I tried to lie in bed and read, but even the undemanding prose and puerile plot of the book proved too much for me. Through the thin wall I could hear Mr. Rae talking again.
I am not proud of myself for putting that tumbler to the wall. My excuse remains that after all he had shared with me that day there was little he could have wanted to keep from me. It is a poor excuse, but it's all I can think of.
Even with the aid of the glass I could still make little out. My hearing is not what it used to be. The tone of his voice reminded me of the one I had used when trying to coax my children back to sleep after a nightmare. There was something that sounded like: "I'm so tired." And then I heard him say Elaine's name.
I put the glass back on my bedside table and lay back on the bed, wishing I could stop the last five minutes from ever having happened.
Mr. Rae failed to appear again at dinner. I worried that in his weakened state he would not be able to miss many meals without grave side effects. I considered asking the waitress whether I could take some food up to him, but thought that if Mr. Rae had wanted a meal he would have come down for it. If the truth be told I was more interested in finding an excuse to see him, to settle some of the thoughts disturbing my mind.
I did not sleep at all that night. From time to time I pressed my ear to the wall, resisting the tumbler in the pretence of respecting Mr. Rae's privacy. There was no sound at all, no matter how many times I listened.
I took my usual walk in the morning, after a breakfast that again was not graced by Mr. Rae. I wondered how long it would be before the waitress reported his absence to the hotel manager. Deaths in the rooms were not exactly unknown, given the average age of the residents.
Once back in my room I listened again, but there was still nothing. I resolved to be the one to find him, if he was dead. He deserved such a discovery to come from a friend, albeit such a new one.
The builders who transformed the Atlantic into the travesty of its former self it surely is cut many corners in their attempt to keep the costs down. Not only are the walls thin and the window frames shaky, but the plumbing wails like a banshee at night and the ceilings shed plaster like dandruff.
They also saved money by using substandard locks in every door. I discovered on my first night here that my key would open other doors when I came upstairs in the dark, feeling depressed and a more than a bit confused. I had half-forgotten my door number and walked into Mr. O'Connell's room by accident, catching him in the middle of an act that impressed more than shocked me, given his age.
We both complained to the management, but their sole answer was to ask us not to advertise the deficiency in our security. Our further protestations were met with the threat that rents would have to be raised if such trivial maintenance work were to be undertaken.
Without any hope of an answer I knocked on Mr. Rae's door before attempting to unlock it. Even in such dire circumstances there is always room for politeness. Of course there was no answer.
I hoped and prayed that my key would fit Mr. Rae's door. It stuck at first, but a little wiggle made the lock click over.
It was a shock, but no surprise when I saw him sprawled over the bed, his eyes open and staring. What did surprise me was the razor blade in his right hand and the pool of blood coming from his left wrist. I could not believe he would commit suicide. Why would a man with so few days left shorten them like this?
I closed the door behind me and looked again. Once the initial shock waned I noticed a few things that seemed very odd. On his bedside table there was a bottle of antiseptic and a roll of bandages. A soiled bandage, crusted with dried blood sat on the floor. The blood that came from his wrist followed on to a loose trail that led to his odd little leather bag, sitting on the table next to the antiseptic.
While I had an uncomfortable idea of what I would find in the bag the details were still mercifully unknown. I knew they could not stay that way.
What I saw was worse than I had imagined. In the novels that fill my nights there are always nameless monstrosities, slithering and stalking, their very appearance enough to drive delicate human minds over the very brink of madness. What lay in the bag, while misshapen and hideous, was too pathetic to be terrifying. It was soft and red, like an aborted foetus, but shaped like a small football. There were veins that pulsed blood tangled across its surface like vines. In the middle of all this there was a single staring eye, all too human in aspect. Under the eye was an opening that could only have been a mouth, toothless as a baby's, crusted with blood.
I was not aware of my legs giving way, but I found myself sitting on the bed, half-resting on poor Mr. Rae's corpse. My mind was blank, overloaded by too much horror and pain. I must have been there for some time, but I really couldn't say how long. Once my mind began to work again I knew what I had to do.
In any one of my nocturnal novels I would have been the screaming heroine, trying to remove an abomination from God's clean earth. There was no screaming, however. I took the knot of flesh from the bag calmly and dashed it against the wall. It was not fear or disgust I felt, but a pity so awful it made me feel torn inside. The thing hit the wall with a wet sound that will haunt me for my remaining years and then it fell heavily to the floor. There was a sickly red and yellow stain where it had made its impact. Just to make sure I stamped on the poor, damned thing, splitting it like a rotten cabbage.
I picked up the sorry remains and put them back in the bag, taking it back into my room. I hid the bag under my bed before going back and locking the door. Then I went to see the hotel manager, to tell her Mr. Rae had been quiet for a very long time.
It turned out that Mr. Rae had covered his tracks very well. No one ever managed to trace his or Elaine's families. Whatever his name was, it was not Rae. I am sorry he never felt he could tell me what it really was; I would like to have known. There was no driving license or passport to identify him, no correspondence tucked away in his suitcase or any pockets that may have given an address.
Luckily I still had some of the lump sum that Harold's pension had provided upon his death. Even then I could hardly afford the funeral, but I felt that Mr. Rae deserved better than a pauper's grave.
I asked the undertaker to give me a few minutes alone with Mr. Rae before the cremation. Once he had left us I put the little leather bag as far down in the coffin as I could force it. I don't believe anyone found it.
When I had been given the ashes I took them down to the spot on the waterfront where Mr. Rae had told me his story. I watched the horizon as I scattered the ashes across the surf in small handfuls. I think he would have wanted them to be together like this.
I am not immune to self-pity. Sometimes, when it's cold and the chill gets into my bones I curse my age. I am still lonely, unable to find anyone else within the hotel who has a spark of what I would call life. In recent months I have felt strange pains in my lower abdomen that I fear is the first sign of cancer. Any time these things concern me too much, though, I find myself thinking back to the feel of that coarse ash slipping through my fingers and the view of the grey sky and sea touching - a meeting of infinities. Whatever life I have left and however it passes it will always feel richer, if only in comparison to the horror that fills the lives of others.
(c) 1997 XoYo
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