The Other Side

Lucy Bauer
The Other Side
Strange places, old hotels. People flowing in and out of doors with numbers and doors without, passing through corridors leading who knows where. Things changing over time, yet staying the same. Some rooms open to all, some closed to prying eyes. Lines that should not be crossed.
It was the Tiffany lamp that did it: the colourful glass shade, intertwining leaves and flowers. Normally, I would be the last person to defy a request to “Please keep out“ but the fragile chain was strung low across the corridor between the door of my room and the next, and the lamp, glowing dimly, was so very pretty. It stood on a small antique table just beyond the door next to mine; beyond that, the corridor melted into darkness.
I had to have a closer look. Carefully, I stepped over the chain. Scarcely had my foot touched the other side when a woman swept round round the dark corner that I had taken for a dead end. I retrieved my foot clumsily, catching it on the chain and setting it swinging. The woman greeted me with a crooked smile, “Hello there!“
“Hello,“ I replied, feeling caught in the act, but she appeared unconcerned by my transgression. She stopped at the door of the room on the other side of the chain and gave me a sideways look.
“New here?“
“Arrived yesterday.“
Now that it seemed I was not to be accused of trepassing, I relaxed enough to take stock of my new acquaintance. She was about my age, or perhaps over twenty-five, but immeasurably more stylish and self-assured. Her retro look, so fashionable but so hard to pull off for the likes of me, was breathtakingly glamorous. She was appraising me too. Her eyes travelled up and down the length of me and one immaculately powdered cheek twitched with a smile that was just short of a smirk. The blatant scrutiny unnerved me; I felt bedraggled.
“Since you‘re next door, you might as well know I’m Betty. I’m a secretary here.“
“Elizabeth,“ I replied. It was awkward; no hand crossed the chain in greeting. Betty threw back her coiffed head with a peal of laughter.
“Betty, Beth, Liz - all these variations on Elizabeth! Our parents just couldn’t resist the temptation to follow the royal example, could they? Yours opted for the posh version!“
So we did have something in common, if only a name, though I was sure my parents‘ choice had not been influenced by royal preferences of ninety years ago. Betty studied me again with her quizzical smile.
“And what brings you here – Elizabeth?“ I heard contempt in the way she exaggerated each syllable of my name.
“My husband. He’s joining me on Friday.“
It came out all wrong. Ron was treating me to some spa luxury while he attended the advanced flying course that he had been dreaming of for so long. The airfield was nearby but Ron said it was important for him to take advantage of the accommodation available there as there would be theory classes in the evening. Coming back to the hotel every night would be a distraction. This had been a disappointment to me but I hadn’t said so.
“He’s at the airfield, training,“ I added lamely.
“Is he now!“ Betty exclaimed. “Well, I could tell you a thing or two about what goes on down at the airfield.“ She examined a perfect fingernail, painted lips pressed together as if trying to suppress that smile. “Not long married, I suppose? That’ll be how hubby managed to get you in here. Lucky you – doesn‘t often happen.“
I was confused and irritated. What had the fact that we had only been married for a couple of months to do with it and I couldn‘t recall Ron saying there had been any problem booking the room; a quick online transaction was all it took.
“Anyway,“ she continued, “you want to keep an eye on that man of yours, Lizzie.“ She paused, her hand caressing the handle of the door, her features suddenly serious. When she spoke again, her voice was low. “You see, I had one once who said he‘d be joining me here later. Went out, never came back.“ She looked up, straight at me. “Vanished – just like that! Into thin air.“ She grimaced. “Couldn‘t really blame him, though.“
Betty turned the handle and pushed the door open. I tried to see inside but it was gloomy.
“Anyway, I‘m absolutely dying for a cigarette. The boss doesn‘t like us girls smoking – says it’s not ladylike. But between you and me, Liz, I’m no lady!“ And with a shrug, a backward glance, and a theatrical wink, Betty was gone.
I slept fitfully that night and was woken late by my phone ringing. It was Ron, excited about the practice flight he was about to set off on. The weather wasn‘t ideal, he said, but that was part of the challenge.
“What‘s it like at the airfield?“ I asked. “A lot going on?“
“Oh no,“ Ron replied. “Only a couple of other guys here for the course.“
“Any women?“ It was supposed to sound like teasing, but jealousy was a recurring affliction I had difficulty concealing. It had caused problems between us in the past.There was a brief silence and then I could hear Ron grinning mischievously as he replied, “Well, there’s the secretary, a bit of a vamp actually. But don’t worry, darling, I managed to fight her off. Must go. Bye now.“
I struggled to get the nagging suspicions Betty had planted in my mind under control but they had me in their grip. Reason told me Ron was joking; paranoia told me I could never hope to keep my husband faithful to me. Betty had said she was the secretary “here“. Could that possibly mean here in the area, rather than here at the hotel? Was she the vamp down at the airfield? The description would fit. Had she flirted unsuccessfully with Ron and, embittered at being rebuffed once again, was now avenging herself with her ridiculous insinuations? Or had Ron, already regretting committing himself to a boring neurotic, been seduced by her? Why the pause when I asked about women? I worried that by the time Ron arrived I would be in such a state that we would argue and I would make a fool of myself yet again.
Leaving my room to go down to breakfast, I stopped in the corridor beside the chain and listened hard. The silence was deafening. There was only the gleam of the Tiffany lamp. I resolved there and then to knock on Betty’s door under some pretext and then steer the conversation round to the airfield again. In fact, I was certain she had already left for work and my knock would remain unanswered and this made me bold. I stepped over the chain with conviction. Before I could even raise my hand, the door snapped open and there she was, removing her cigarette from between those red lips with slim, steady fingers. This time there was no trace of a smile.
“Elizabeth! Was there something you wanted?“
I was completely taken aback; the words I hadn’t prepared stuck in my throat. Betty regarded me earnestly; she seemed to be looking through me and beyond. She drew on her cigarette, then, with a sigh, watched the ash she flicked from it float down to the Persian carpet. Her eyes remained lowered. “You see, I think you sense it already, don‘t you, Elizabeth,“ she murmured. “ You’ve lost him, he’s gone. Just like my Ronnie. I’m sorry, it’s just the way it is.“
I have no recollection of how I got back over the chain and down to reception in the hotel foyer. The next thing I remember is leaning, breathless, over the counter and the receptionist asking me if I was all right.
“No, actually, I’m not,“ I gasped. “I want to make a complaint about the secretary.“
The receptionist raised her eyebrows. “The secretary? Kirsty? One moment, Mrs Kay, I’ll just ..“
“No, Betty, the one called Betty. She’s in the room next to mine.“
“I’m sorry, Mrs Kay, there’s some kind of misunderstanding. We have no secretary called Betty. Let me see who’s in the room next to yours.“ She turned to her computer screen. I was feeling dizzy.
“It’s on the other side of the chain,“ I said.
The receptionist nodded at her screen. “The thing is, Mrs Kay, there’s nobody in that room. It’s actually a little museum - quite interesting really. You see, this building was a Royal Airforce headquarters during World War II. The pilots were sent out on their bombing missions over Germany from the airfield down the road.“ She pushed a leaflet across the counter. “Some information for you. Sad, actually. So many of them were lost, went out and never came back. When this building was converted into a hotel – in the fifties, I think – they kept that room, the secretary‘s office, intact. It’s locked, but if you like, I can arrange for you to…“
But I was on my way out the door, staggering, gulping. “Which way is it … the airfield?“
“Mrs Kay, I don‘t think you’re well. Please sit down and I’ll …“
And it was at that moment that the phone rang. And I watched the receptionist as she listened to the voice on the other end. And I saw her look up at me, her eyes full of dread. And time stood still. And only then did I understand what Betty meant.
Twitter Facebook Drucken