The Hotel at the Edge of the World
John and Ali were star-crossed. They had met as teenagers at a night club. John had spotted Ali and Tina looking over a balcony at the dance floor below. Wheeling out the ageless “What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?” to the blonde haired, blue eyed Ali, before she had a chance to reply, John had followed up with a string of cheesy one-liners. Both girls were soon laughing and they had spent the rest of the night chatting and drinking at one of the night club tables. John had been given a lift home in Ali’s Austin 1300. Tina had handed him a note as he got out with both of their telephone numbers on. A couple of days later he had called Ali to arrange a date. Five years later, they were married.
Most marriages have ups and downs and so it was with John and Ali. They were happy more than they were sad. Emma was born to them within five years of tying the knot. Ali was dedicated to her animal-centric career at the vets whilst John struggled as a hack writer. Money was always tight but didn’t seem to matter; they always got by. Everything changed when Ali turned 50.
They had talked about a cruise as a way of celebrating Ali’s milestone, quickly concluding that a weekend away was actually more realistic. That was before the crushing headaches and nausea that led to a fateful specialist consultation. That day was still alive and kicking in John’s memory. The white walls, sanitised floors, the chairs set up in the middle of the room, the poker face of the consultant. John’s world had faded with the words “It’s bad news I’m afraid”. Within six months the cancer had taken his wife.
That’s when John had started drinking for real. He’d always liked a few beers or maybe a bottle of wine but had stayed within the recommended 14 units weekly for the most part. That all changed after Ali’s death. With Emma living up north with her partner, John was left unchecked. Most days he would roam from room to room, unshaven reaching for his first drink in the morning. Coffee had been replaced by Famous Grouse, a coffee mug had become a crystal tumbler. John was a bad drunk. Rows with his editor were now commonplace; thinking straight to write coherently was proving improbable. The bills piled up, letters frequently had red print on the envelope. People worried about John. The metaphorical well he was in became more and more comfortable as he stared up at the top from an increasing distance below. More and more people stopped worrying about John; the effort had become too much.
On one particular day, self-pity had taken a backseat long enough to watch a re-run of “Casablanca” on TCM. It reminded John of an evening watching the movie with Ali. She had loved that Humphrey Bogart classic with its memorable script. Rain had pounded the windows that night. It had made the experience in the living room all the more cosy. He could see Ali’s face smiling back at him at key moments in the film. The red and orange roses in the glass vase on the hearth bloomed for infinity in his mind. Life really was about moments, fleeting moments, moments that made time stand still. Just for a while.
It was on another rainy, wind-swept night that John stumbled upon his future. Things in general were not going well. Only John’s daughter seemed ready to bother with him these days with the occasional phone call. Otherwise, he was something of a pariah. On the upside, John was still writing, albeit the quality wasn’t there. In the middle of an article he hoped to be paid for by one of the nationals, one too many swigs of scotch had left him drowsy. Next thing he knew, he was waking, groggy, laptop still on lap. The screen showed a picture of a hotel. This was strange because he had been typing a word document before the whisky took him. The hotel loomed from the web page; entrance replete with glass doors, concrete pillars either side of the covered area that led to the front doors. The functional, modern building was set in a forest location with dark skies all around that seemed to extend into forever. Three rows of rooms stared back from the image. On the “about the hotel” section, an address was revealed. The hotel tag line was “Come and stay. You won’t want to leave – ever.” John noted the address. John noted the hotel name: "The Edge of the World”
Autumn is the time of year with the most resplendent colours. Trees of brown and gold leaves lined either side of the road that saw John’s car cruising towards its destination. The radio blared for company, the latest song to play was “Up the Junction” by Squeeze. “I never thought it would happen with me and my girl from Clapham…” John winced at the lyric “She left me when my drinking became a proper stinging”. Still, today was the beginning of the end. He neared the turn for Heathrow.
Elsa boarded the plane with no regrets. The experience in London hadn’t worked out. She had met Philip online. She knew the risks in meeting someone in real life compared to just being friends in a virtual world. She didn’t expect the domestic violence. Philip seemed such a nice person in the chat rooms. They had declared their love for each other after a few weeks. Elsa had been invited to London to stay with Phillip for a few days. The first slap had taken her by complete surprise. The last slap was a few days later. Whilst Phillip had popped to the shops, Elsa had thrown her things into a suitcase and left in a hurry. Staying overnight at a hotel in the airport, she had bought a single ticket for the 13:14 to Stockholm. She was now entering the plane, ushered onto her flight by smiling cabin crew. Blonde haired, blue eyed and a petite 5’ 4” Elsa didn’t stand out from the crowd but looked good for her forty years. She was archetypal Scandinavian.
Elsa stared out at the tarmac. She had bagged a window seat. She turned to look along the gangway and saw passengers reaching up to stow away their hand luggage. An unkempt, unshaven, tall man approached and sat in the seat next to her. She looked away. Glancing back she heard “What’s a nice girl like you doing on a plane like this?” The stranger rolled his eyes, looking up at the plane ceiling. “Sorry about that. Bad habit”. She considered this for a second and decided to smile after all. The man looked relieved.
“Hi, I’m John.”
“Elsa” she replied.
“That’s the plan.”
That was enough conversation for now. The cabin crew did their safety checks, the passengers watched the video, the plane took off and everyone settled into the flight.
No further words were exchanged until food was served after 20 minutes or so post take-off. Unfolding their makeshift tables from the back of the chairs in front, Elsa and John smiled fleetingly at each other as they awaited food and drink.
“Any plans when we land?” asked John
“Going back home to stay with my family. What about you?”
“Oh, I’m off to the North. There’s a place I like the look of. It seems pretty desolate but that’s OK just now”.
“Why are you looking for desolate? Do you want peace and quiet?”
John warmed to Elsa’s English spoken in a Swedish accent.
“You could say that. It’s been one of those years.”
She noticed the faint smell of alcohol on his breath. He had been drinking but not recently. Perhaps he was one of the minority who didn’t drink at the airport.
“I know what you mean.” Elsa sympathised.
“Well we’ve got another couple of hours. Wanna tell me about it?” John said surprising himself. He hadn’t opened up to anyone in a very long time
Elsa told him her story. She missed out the more intimate details along with much of the physical and mental abuse. A sketchy overview would suffice but she did feel oddly relieved at talking about it. Knowing she was unlikely to see John again made this a safe environment.
John recounted his story. He tried to stay emotionless when he mentioned his wife. It was a struggle that only he was aware of. He disguised it well. Having freed themselves of their recent emotional baggage, the conversation shifted to a more general discussion about Sweden. Both were comfortable in each other’s company. They clicked straight away. Before they knew it, the pilot’s voice came over the tannoy requesting that passengers fasten their seat belts for landing.
The plane taxied to a standstill; a cue for a free for all to retrieve hand luggage from overhead lockers. John looked at Elsa. Smiling he announced “It was lovely to meet you. I guess this is where we part company.” Elsa felt a tinge of disappointment. She replied “Yes, it was good to meet you too. Enjoy your stay.” With that, John disappeared into the crowd of people jostling to get off the plane.
Having passed through customs, John stayed overnight in a hotel close by. Kiruna was 1,200km away from Stockholm. He had considered getting another flight or even a train but decided on a hire car. It was a long drive ahead – approximately 14 hours on the E45. He punched in the co-ordinates on the Satnav and flicked on the radio in the Saab. Settling in for a long drive, John set off at 5am. Long stretches of the trip were covered by endless forest. He marvelled at the beauty. Raw and desolate. Just what he wanted. There was a majesty to pine forests, magnified by snow. There was something magical about seeing snowflakes drifting down from darkening skies.
John finally arrived after dark. He had stopped off a couple of times to take a break and grab at coffee and a snack at services along with more fuel for the car. The final part of the journey had taken him along a muddy track that went deep into yet another forest. He could see the hotel getting nearer. The car head lamps on full beam, the twin lights cut through the snow. At the end of the track, he found a worse for wear car parking surface. The concrete was pit holed throughout, water finding a home in the worn surface. John squeezed the breaks, popped on the handbrake and starred at the sight he was now greeted with. The hotel hadn’t had guests in a very long time. If it wasn’t for the Saab’s headlights, it would be pitch black.
John opened the car door. Rising from his car seat, he clutched his parka, hood up, insulating against the now, affecting wind. It was cold; very cold. He approached the hotel. He shone a torch that was in the car glove compartment. The glass from the doors at the hotel entrance was missing. There was nothing to stop anyone from entering. He entered the lobby area. His gaze took him to a flight of stairs. He carefully picked his way through the rubble strewn hotel. Having navigated the stairs, a corridor led to a balcony at the back of the hotel. He shone the torch on a handrail. He looked out into a star lit, night sky. Thousands of white, pin pricks peppered the vista. John leaned against the handrail and looked down. The black canvas of night sky extended as far as the eye could see in every direction – including down below. From this angle, it was as though the hotel was suspended in space. John climbed onto the first rung of the handrail. It leaned forward. The bolts could give way at any time. John wasn’t sure what to expect but wasn’t surprised at what he found. This was an easy way to end things; just lean forward a little more and fall. Fall into the void. Never to find land again. Just falling and falling. And that would be that. John closed his eyes and held out his arms, wide either side. He thought of that scene in the movie “Titanic” when di Caprio was riding the front of the ship with Kate Winslet. No sea here, just the edge of the world.
Eyes closed he felt light penetrating the corner of his eyelid. He slowly opened his eyes. The endless black had been replaced by green, luminous waves of light. They were ethereal, puncturing the sky and glowing. It was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. The Northern Lights were a miracle; a miracle of nature. The aurora lit up the sky. He followed a ray of light all the way to the landing he was standing on. At the end of the beam, he could see a woman lit up. She was petite and blonde haired. She had blue eyes and was smiling. John’s heart leaped as his mind was filled with thoughts of Ali. He had found her again. The light dimmed. The silence was broken with the words “Desolate enough for you?” John squinted and shone the torch on the area the words were coming from. It was Elsa.
“So how are you enjoying Sweden?”
He pondered this given he was looking to end things only seconds ago.
“I hope you weren’t thinking of doing anything silly?”
John still wasn’t sure what to say but finally did speak.
“What are you doing here?” he managed.
“I come here now again. Sometimes for solitude, sometimes to talk jumpers down.”
He thought about this.
“Jumpers?" He enquired.
“Yes. Some come here because it’s at the edge of the world. I think they get the call. And it’s easy to topple into nothing. You have something to live for. You have your daughter. You have friends.”
John glanced over the edge once more. It would be easy just to step and leap.
Seconds passed and then she said
“I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship”
John froze and thought of his wife.
“Yes but Bogie never got the girl.” He reflected.
“Have you heard of reboots?” she replied.
Elsa held out her arm.
John thought about his life. He thought about Ali, he thought about his daughter. He thought about the vast, alpine forests and the Aurora Borealis. He thought about how beautiful life could be.
He reached out his arm and took Elsa’s hand.