‘I want to go home,’ wailed Fiona.
The toilet was perhaps too real. It smelt like that place where old elephants go to die. Mary wanted to be sick, but felt it was safer using her handbag. She flung the toilet key down the pan, but it didn’t sink, just sat on turd island waiting to be rescued, a trickle of water washing it clean when she pulled the toilet chain. She covered it delicately with the shiny toilet paper to give it a decent burial.
‘Let’s get out of here.’ Fiona pulled at Mary’s coat sleeve, pulling her back from the horrors of the toilet front line and out into the hotel lobby. Mary’s face took time to adjust. She seemed paler under the harsh fluorescent light, but then her blue eyes seemed to harden like marbles and her chin jutted out, just like her old Ma’s.
‘We’ve paid for a room so we’re staying.’ Mary shifted the tartan suitcase from one hand to the other.
‘But we’ve got over a thousand pounds. A pound doesn’t matter.’ Fiona’s normal speaking voice was set to the high of a child’s and went even higher when she got excited.
Three guys leaning against one of the doors down the hallway shifted their feet and the one with a blue beret covered in badges looked over. With Jordie Pollack for an uncle Mary knew how to meet a man’s gaze and bend it. ‘I wish we’d a thousand pounds then we wouldn’t need to stay in this dump.’ She paused to let the men meditatively pass around the subtle green communal wine, Eldorado in a bottle, and for her words to swirl around the hard wax of their ears, before settling in to their thick head and necks. ‘But we’ve paid our pound and we’re staying the night, come what may.’ The last part was spat out, but there were no takers, nobody looked at them now.
Their room number was 304a. They followed the cracked linoleum pathway round in a circle and came back to the starting point. Fiona stopped and crouched over the bags muttering to herself like a witch. No invocations made it clearer. The room number seemed to start at 306 and then go up the way to room 318. But Mary was not one for giving up. With each circle of the hallway her feet began to beat faster and faster like a Lamberg drum, her legs were all motion, set to spill her down the stairs and onto the front desk, her hands balled- up silent white circles, fists that were set for pounding.
An obese woman lurched out of number 306. A piece of string held her overcoat shut, but a decanter glass Morningside voice, seemed to straighten up her posture. ‘Would any of you young ladies have a cigarette. I seem to have found myself all out!’ She looked first at Fiona, who looked at the floor.
‘We’ve only got one left.’ Mary searched through her bag and pulled out the packet of cigarettes. She held it up for them all to see, like trading beads with the natives. ‘You can have it if you tell us were room 304a is.’
The women looked from one to the other, her lips smacking together. ‘Dear Girl,’ she said, ‘I can do far better than that. I can show you.’
The obese woman’s legs would have supported a snooker table and her movements were similarly restricted. Fiona kept walking into Mary’s heels because she was moving faster than a three-legged tortoise. There was something of the showgirl in the obese woman’s eyes when she pushed open her room door, number 306. Behind it they could see a short corridor made up of what looked like kennels made out of Gyprock sheets, which divided one big room into a number of smaller ones.
‘If you please?’ the obese woman held out her hand for the cigarette packet, her head moving in a formal little bow, before adjusting her body and pushing open one of the doors and disappearing slowly inside, like an iceberg.
Mary searched through her bag for the key to room 304a, but it wasn’t there. She briefly wondered if she had flung the right key onto Turd Island. Not that it mattered. She leaned against the door and it bent like a bow against the Yale lock and sprung open. The George’s management had gone for a minimalist approach. There was room for a double bed and, if they went in side ways they could walk all the way around it and shake hands, like Livingstone and Stanley. There was barely room for two thin people; it would take a lot of presuming to work out what the fatter pilgrim did. The blankets on the bed were also positively Victorian in origin and lay on the bed like brown slabs of macaroon.
‘I can’t stay here,’ Fiona tugged at her friend’s coat.
‘No, you’re right.’ Mary shook her head and her hair flopped about in front of her eyes. She looked disappointed, in a way that suggested she had been expecting a bedroom to rival The Ritz.
Mary bumped the suitcase against her knees as they retraced their steps. They took the staircase slowly, their hands on the smooth ornate rail, a fixture from better times. The concierge tucked his girly mag, the glossiest fixture in The George, behind the desk and scrambled up to his full height, as if that gave him an advantage, but he was as wide as he was tall. Bowser peeked out at them and gave a thin growl and slinked back under the table after getting slapped on his grey nuzzle.
‘The key. You never brought back the toilet key. Even though I specifically asked you.’ His jowls quivered, caught between outrage and a schoolboy performance of some great injustice done to him and bringing tears to his eyes.
‘We left it up there,’ Mary piped up, when he looked at her.
‘Jesus,’ he said sniffing. ‘That means that I’ll have to climb all the way up there, all three hundred and four steps, and three hundred and four steps all the way back down again. And nobody will be manning the front desk. The light bulb will be gone. And all the toilet roll will be gone. I don’t know what they do with it up there, but as soon as you put it out, it’s gone.’ He sniffed and took a quick look in their direction to gauge their reactions. ‘And eh,’ he cleared his throat, ‘the soap will be away…and eh, all the clean towels… That’s how we’ve got the key system. And it’s a half penny a sheet for the toilet roll. How many sheets did you use?’
‘Two thousand,’ deadpanned Mary.
‘That’s,’ said the concierge a frown building on his forehead like a wave try to make sense of such a large sum, before working out it was a joke.
‘It’s ok, we’re leaving.’ Fiona edged forward holding out the room key, like a white hanky, hoping for a truce.
‘You’ll need to pay for a full roll of toilet roll before you go. That’s a shilling.’ The concierge’s tongue sneaked out of his full lips as the tried to work out if he could elbow any more money out of them. ‘And that’s another shilling for, eh, the other toilet roll.’ They made no move to leave or to stay, just stood and looked at him. ‘That’s two shillings in total.’ He tried to make the last part sound official, his Falkirk twang, becoming BBC English.
Mary took the keys out of Fiona’s hand. The concierge took a step back and Bowser took a step forward from beneath the desk, because it looked as if she was going to fling them at him, and hit him square in the forehead. But she didn’t. She pocketed the hotel room key.
‘We’ll be back later.’ A smile flickered across Mary’s face, lighting it up. She put her arm through Fiona’s and they walked around the concierge like a mucky puddle and out into the rain and drizzle of West George Street.
‘I’m glad we’re out of that awful, god-awful place.’ Fiona lent against her pal. Her voice sounded wearied rather than relieved, as if she had been hauling a full pack on route march and had finally put it down. ‘Let’s get something to eat, and some ciggies,’ she said brightly, spying a chip shop across the road.
They got their cigarettes first. Two packs of twenty each and a pack of twenty in case they ran out. Mary sparked up while waiting for Fiona to get served. ‘What do you want? Fiona asked her, but she waved her away in a mouthful of smoke.
Mary looked at the Italian looking woman that served in Mario’s for guidance about what eat. Her eyes flicked from one thing, under the lights of the hot plate, to another. ‘I’m not really hungry; just get me, what’s that thing there?’ She squinted and pointed at the food.
‘That’s a mince pie, said the squat Italian woman, shaking the dandruff lose from her black hair.
‘No next to it, that thing that looks a bit like fish?’ Mary waved her hands about and blew smoke rings into the air as if to emphasise her point.
The Italian woman stolid body remained unmoved and her words, ‘that’s fish,’ came with no embellishments.
‘Just chips for me,’ cut in Fiona, her face crimson with embarrassment, but Mary felt she had to explain.
‘Just give me,’ she pointed at the fish, ‘with plenty of salt and vinegar. I don’t really like fish, but I like the batter. Plenty of salt and vinegar.’
They stood outside their feet turned inwards, looking through the glass, at the white and alternate blue, tiled swimming pool walls, at those queuing to be served, like it was a human aquarium. Their hands moving mechanically to their mouths and their eyes searched outwards, for something new to see, at the sky and buildings surrounding them, hemming them in. They weren’t sure what they were looking for. They felt like tourists in a strange city, so a pigeon to fling any scraps of food they didn’t want would have been nice. But there was never a pigeon when one was needed. They knew from experience that when they were looking for one there was always a flying gaggle of them, the swooping vultures of the viaducts, cooing and shitting and swamping them, like unruly football fans, trying to embarrass them into to giving up eating anything outside and just flinging it away, towards them.
The hailstorm caught them unprepared and soaked within seconds. Mary’s hair curled up and flopped down in front of her face. Fiona looked as if she was wearing a black tin helmet. They didn’t need to speak to each other. They placed down the chip pokes carefully on the edge of the pigeonless pavement and crossed the road. Mary barged through the doors of The George and Fiona was a step behind.
The concierge’s head turreted round, but they only heard the echo of his voice as there feet hit the stairs. There was nobody in the corridors. Fiona joked that they were all in their rooms enjoying the fruits of their illegally gained toilet rolls. Mary used the key in the door and they sat the tartan suitcase carefully on the bed. Her hands searched down below the stuff that she had brought for herself to wear, fussed over some of the stuff that might fit skinny-me-links Fiona and fingered the £1112 which she’d hidden and was still intact, virgin money, that they needed for an abortion.
They quickly changed into some dry clothes. Fiona looked good in anything. Mary looked good in practically anything so they swapped gasps at who could come up with the best combinations of short skirt, shorter skirt and any colour to catch the eye.
‘I’m tired,’ Mary slumped down onto of the bed covers.
‘What do you think they’ll be doing now, at home?’ Fiona lay down diagonally beside her, leaning her head against shoulder and looking at the ceiling.
‘Well Ma will be…’ Mary broke off, her eyes filling with unshed tears, ‘it doesn’t matter. Let’s try and get a bit of shuteye and we’ll get the early train to London in the morning.’
‘I want to go home,’ sobbed Fiona.
Mary sat bolt upright on the bed her hands darting across to shut the suitcase and pack away the money and some of the clothes that they’d left lying. ‘If that’s the way you feel, then I’ll go to London without you.’ She carefully packed away a sky blue dress with red flashes that fitted neither of them.
‘It’s my abortion, you can’t go to London without me.’ Fiona’s voice had a pleading quality, but Mary didn’t look at her, just quietly continued packing.
‘Ouch,’ said Fiona, jumping off the bed. ‘Something bit me.’
‘Well, it wasn’t me.’ Mary’s thin lips snapped together; shutting the suitcase and zipping it with a grunt.