So I’m in my room, at last, having driven God knows how many miles through snow drifts, blizzards, freezing fog, not to mention nose to tail traffic leaving London, and I’ve just slipped off my boots and am thinking of raiding the mini-bar, as they appear to have forgotten my complimentary half bottle of Moët, running a bath and sinking into the over cushioned sofa, when the phone goes.
The one by the bed and the other one near the mini-bar, and no doubt the one in the toilet too. I’ve always thought it’s rather disgusting putting a phone in the loo. Do people actually have conversations while they are in there, on the job so to speak?
Not used to the trill, being so used to the constant racket my mobile makes, it takes me a moment to work out what the noise means. I reach for the handset on the side of the table near the mini-bar. “Hello?” I say, expecting someone from the front desk telling me my complimentary bottle of Moët is on the way, plus a fruit basket, and they’re terribly sorry for the oversight, but the weather has taken them completely by surprise. What the weather would have to do with me not receiving my free bottle of bubbly I have no idea. Though the hotel, according to the woman who checked me in is packed. No one can now get out because of the weather, and those who have made it are lucky. I was one of the last to get through. Standing in the crowded reception, I wasn't sure how lucky I was.
“Hello?” I say again.
“Ice fingers on your back.”
“Who is this?” But before I even said that, I knew he’d already hung up. I sit on the sofa and am immediately engulfed by an avalanche of cushions. Why are there always so many cushions in these sorts of rooms? Cushions on the sofa, on the bed on the window seat. What are people meant to do with them? I throw two onto the floor. Confused, cross.
I decide to do nothing about it for the moment. I don’t want to make a fuss, which is unusual for me, and given my job, but I am not meant to be working on this trip.
My name is Summer Fitzgerald. I’m 31 and I’m a hotel inspector for Hideaway Inc, an American-headquartered luxury hotel reservation group. Hotels, such as the one I’m currently staying in, pay a fortune to be a member. However, they also have to meet a number of stringent controls and regulations, which is where I play a part. I check in as regular guest, sample the facilities, snoop around, fill out numerous forms, write a report, and check out. Paying my bill in full. Except Hideaway Inc then hits the hotel for my expenses. It’s part of the deal.
Rarely is a hotel kicked out of the group. Mainly because they pay so much to be a member, and then we get a cut of each reservation fee that come through us as well. In fact my job is almost superfluous. I’m meant to go incognito, but most managers quickly know who I am. And when I’m not incognito everyone is pulling favours. It’s all very corrupt.
Take now. I’m not here in an official capacity as such, but I got one of the friendly reservation agents, this guy called Walter, to work the system. We’re always doing things like that for each other. Walter is a real sweetie, however. I’ve been flirting with him via e-mail for months. It’s certainly paid off. I’m being compted, for two nights, half-board.
Which makes me think, a number of people, admin types, Walter at least, do know I’m here. But none of my friends, or ex-friends do. They’re used to me traveling all the time, they never know where I am. I come and go as I please pretty much, except coming here was more of an escape than anything else.
The Lodge, in deepest Gloucestershire, in the middle of winter, with roaring fires, a spa and a one Michelin-starred restaurant, was exactly what I thought I needed after Danny. I’m used to staying in luxury hotels on my own. It doesn't phase me.
But phone calls like that do. They really creep me out, which is why I’ve decided not to do anything about it and try to forget it. It’s all I need right now. Besides, I’m great at that, ignoring things until they simply go away.
The one bit about being in luxury hotels on my tod I don’t like, is dinner. A youngish woman, reasonably attractive, on her own, everyone stares at you. And however good the restaurant is, the waiters treat you in an odd way too. They always seem mildly embarrassed when they come close.
This is the first time I’ve ventured out my room — I had a bath, nap, and watched BBC News 24, which was all about the weather. Looks like I might be stuck here for days.
At least the dining room is lovely. I don’t know what this room used to be. The trophy room? The walls are lined with antlers, and the stuffed heads and feet of wild boar. Did wild boar used to roam around in Gloucestershire? I’m OK with stuffed animals. As long as they are in the right setting, and here, with all the old oak beams, the stone walls and the roaring fire in the massive hearth, they fit just fine. Presuming the boar were local.
Plus, the chef, what’s his name is renowned for his game dishes, his contemporary twists on classic country fayre, like his ravioli of woodcock and his cappuccino of pheasant livers. People come to The Lodge as much for his cooking, as for the spa and the middle-of-nowhere location. It’s an impressive set-up. One of Hideaway Inc’s most popular hotels. Even if the place wasn't up to scratch in every department, it wouldn't be dropped. It creates too much revenue. I’m pleased I don't have to go through the pretence of writing a report this time, that I can sit back and enjoy myself.
It’s not just the waiters who are making me feel especially self-conscious this evening, but four tables away, is another lone diner, and he keeps looking my way. For this type of hotel, at this time of year, this is really odd. You never get people on their own, except hotel inspectors. Perhaps his wife, girlfriend, partner, whatever, is not feeling very well and is in their room, in bed. He’s mid forties, I guess, with dark brown hair, side-parted, and startling blue-green eyes. Amazing that I can see them from here, but they do seem exceptional, though his skin is very pale. He’s thin, too. Probably quite tall. And well dressed. Black polo-neck, light weed jacket, dark jeans. If I was being girly, I’d say he looks a bit Bryan Ferry-ish. If he wasn't so thin.
He’s putting me off my food. There’s nothing worse than being stared at by a stranger, an almost good-looking stranger, when you are eating. Besides, I am not sure whether I’m meant to drink the cappuccino of pheasant livers or use the teaspoon. It comes in a small glass coffee cup with a metal handle attached to a metal cradle.
What I don’t understand is, if the hotel is meant to be so full, how come there’s room for all these single people to have dinner on their own. Not that I’d want to have to share a table with him, or anyone else I don’t know.
Oh God, he’s winked at me. I’m sure of it. Just when I was trying to suck out the last of the cappuccino, having given up on the spoon, I happened to look his way, with my head tipped back. I couldn't help it. That’s when he did it. Those startling blue eyes. Yuck. I feel myself blushing. I’m wearing a tight-fitting low-cut white Prada blouse, with a maroon cardy from Agnes b — I either get my cardies from Agnes b or Smedley — and I feel my neck going puce as well as my face. I so wish I hadn't gone for the winter tasting menu. All eight courses. If there is a tasting menu, I suppose I’ve just got into the habit of having it. Just because I’m not working, I don’t think it should preclude me tonight. And I am on half-board. Besides, I thought it would give me time to think about Danny. Whether I’d done the right thing. If I was in my room, I would just be watching News24, or CNN, or some crappy film.
Danny? I’ve ditched him, for good this time, and that’s that. I don’t want to think about it.
He was beginning to freak me out. He had to go. He didn't like it much. It’s not only the man with the weird eyes, but I have this odd feeling that I’m not just being watched, but stalked. It’s thinking about Danny that’s doing it. I need to concentrate on the food, because it’s remarkably good. Though I bet I’m going to get indigestion later.
Snow is still falling. The courtyard is smothered and pretty, a mulberry tree and ancient stonework being spot-lit. Walking back to my room, along a glassed in passage way — the way from the restaurant to the main bit of the hotel — I enjoy the sight and for a moment feel good about being here on my own, in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of winter. Besides, I don’t feel too stuffed. I can still see my feet.
I’m not fat, remotely, though I’m not as thin as I once was. I usually make use of the spas and the gyms on my travels, but seeing as I have to sample the cuisine, what else am I meant to do?
Before I reach the way through to the lobby, I look back along the walkway, and the courtyard, to take in the wintery view, and to make sure I’m not being followed. Weird eyes was still eating when I left the restaurant. If the food hadn't been so good I would never have lasted all eight courses.
The lobby is surprisingly deserted. Where have all the stranded people gone? However, the fire is still going, despite the high-backed plush chairs circled around it being empty. I can hear someone talking somewhere. Very occasionally, in these places, I have a tea or a drink at the bar before bed, but I usually end up feeling like a high-class prostitute. At least, some sad slapper on the pull.
My room is on the top floor, the third, at the far end of what must once have been the attic. The windows are in the caves and the ceiling slopes, and there are exposed beams and there is a pretty fireplace, and a large marble bathroom which seems a bit out of the place. I always ask for a quiet room. Aside from Hideaway Inc’s obsession with noise pollution, I can’t say I’m too keen on being kept awake at night. Given that the hotel is meant to be packed to the rafters, the third floor corridor is amazingly quiet, but this, I’m thinking, might have something to do with the snow, the way snow muffles sound.
All I can hear in my room is a faint hiss from a radiator. And the phone. I don’t have to think what the trilling sound is for a second this time. I haven’t even had time to put my handbag down, or slip off my shoes.
I don’t know what to do. I’m totally freaking out. The minute, the second almost, I enter my room, the phone goes. It was the same last time.
The noise seems louder than ever. Probably this has something to do with the very quietness it is piercing. I’m aware of disturbing other guests along the corridor, who must all be asleep already.
I reach for the nearest handset, the one by the bed, determined to be brave. Thinking it must just be the front desk making a mistake. Or maybe Danny has tracked me down and the timing is a coincidence. He hasn't called my mobile though — I’ve been checking it all evening.
“Hello?” I say. I feel sick. Or swamped by indigestion anyway. No one says anything the other end , though I’m sure I can hear breathing. I’m not going to repeat myself and just as I’m about to put the phone down, he says it again.
“Who is this?” I scream.
“Icy fingers, around your neck.”
I chuck the phone on the bed and am out of the door and running down the corridor. I don't even think about taking the lift, and descend the main staircase two steps at a time. Thank God I don’t meet anyone coming up because I’m really flying.
I almost fall into the lobby, expecting puzzled looks from the front desk staff and whoever else is in there. But the place appears to be empty again. I want to scream but start banging on the bell on the desk, instead. My mind is rushing through all possibilities. They must know whether the call is internal or external. Perhaps they can even retrieve the number by doing 1471, or something.
“Hello?” I shout. Where the hell is everyone? “Hello?”
A sound, a sense of movement behind me, I’m not sure which, makes me turn round. Rising from one of the high backed chairs by the roaring fire is the thin man with weird eyes and dark hair. He doesn't look like Bryan Ferry. If it’s anyone, it’s Jack Nicholson. How he was in The Shining. When he was still slim and good looking.
He’s coming towards me. “Can I help?” he says.
I’m sure I recognise the voice. “No,” I say. “I just need the person in charge.”
“I haven’t seen anyone since I’ve been here. Maybe they’ve gone to bed.”
“Oh God,” I say, thinking this is not the sort of hotel where the front desk is ever left empty. There should always be someone on duty. I’d blast it in a report.
“You’re Summer, aren’t you?” he says.
“How do you know my name?”
“I knew it was you. Earlier. In the restaurant. I’m Walter,” he says, offering his hand. “From Hideaway Inc.”
“What are you doing here?” I shake his hand, not knowing what else to do. It’s freezing. Despite the fact he’s been sitting by the fire.
“Warming my hands. What do you think?” he says.
Originally in The Independent On Sunday, December 11th, 2005