A man in a faded green uniform is standing by the fountain in the lobby. He swivels soundlessly to face you; the lights flicker in his double row of buttons. Your feet glide through the carpet with a shushh shushh shushh of heels. You have the sensation you are walking in powder snow.
'Hello, sir,' says the man. 'Welcome to my hotel.'
A meek, expectant, ghoulish face, the eyes bulging out through the lids.
'Can I carry your bags up these stairs, sir? Let me take a hold of those things.'
You are following him towards an enormous staircase. He walks in a buzzardy, hopping sort of way, stooped forward with the weight of the bags. You pause to look back at the fountain. It is making an uneasy dribbling sound.
'We only turn it on at certain times, sir,' he says. 'Otherwise it humidifies the room. It makes everything moist and attracts very tiny flies.'
He is standing at the foot of the stairs, looking upwards. Your eyes follow the line of the banister, curving away gracefully up and up, on and on. The topmost the steps are indistinct, with a thin sea mist descending. You notice fingerprints on the polished rail.
'Or would you rather ride in the elevator?' he suggests.
The doors close. You are encased in a mirrored sarcophagus. His finger hovers over a panel of little button lights.
He asks: 'Would you like to go up or would you like to go down?'
You wonder if this is some sort of a joke.
It appears you are going down.
You are walking down a long, narrow corridor. He is dragging your bags on the floor behind him. Doors slide past on the left and on the right. Occasionally you pass paintings, little framed openings onto mountains or the sea.
Perhaps you should try to calculate how many hours you have spent walking down corridors such as this.
He stops and rests the bags. Under the light of the fancy lamp above the door, which is shaped like a koi carp, you can see two grooved lines that run vertically from the middles of his eyebrows to his forehead, disappearing under the bell-boy hat. You can’t imagine what expressions this man could possibly have pulled to get wrinkles there, in those places.
He is smiling like a grocery assistant.
'Welcome to your room,' he says. 'Here’s your door. It doesn’t have a number on it.'
Inside there are a bed and some other things.
His voice echoes in the en-suite bathroom. 'I’m putting your bags down here, sir.' There is the sound of running water. He comes out wiping his hands on the inside of his jacket.
You are sitting experimentally on the edge of the bed. You have examined the furnishings. There is a bedside table with a drawer in it, and half of you is looking forward to the man leaving so you can have a look at what’s in the drawer, while the other half knows that there will be nothing at all in there.
There never is, in those drawers.
'Look at the wallpaper, sir,' he suggests.
It is covered in a pattern of tiny flowers.
You lie back on the bed with your shoes sticking over the end.
Suddenly you imagine that the man is tugging at your shoes, trying to get them off, and this makes you sit up again quickly. You have been mistaken: he is over on the far side of the room, inspecting a wall socket. He has stopped smiling now and seems rather grave.
'Would you like a biscuit, sir? You’ll find one underneath your pillow,' he informs.
After an appropriate time has elapsed he adds, by way of explaining things: 'I put them there to hide them from the maids.'
You move your toes. Your shoes feel loose.
Looking down, you realise that both sets of laces have been untied.
He is watching you now with an expression of dismay.
Beside the bed is a heavy brown plastic radio. You turn it on and move the dial back and forwards. Nothing but a sea of static in both directions.
'Do you like music, sir?' He is moving imperceptibly, you sense this much at least, but it’s impossible to tell whether he is coming towards you or going away. 'We are installing a musical system inside our elevator, soon. The sound will come from speakers hidden in the ceiling. Imagine that, sir, going up or down to any floor you like, listening to music all the way.'
Your eyes keep wandering from him to the floral wallpaper, from the floral wallpaper back to him. A single fly is going round and round in circles on the ceiling.
Suddenly he is right in front of you, pulling off his gloves. You slide sideways off the bed and leap away.
You go over to the window but he is there, too. He is holding out one pale hand and looking at you with damp, begging eyeballs.
'Tip, sir?' he asks, on the verge of tears.
You give him all the money you can find.
Once he has shut the door behind him you double-knot your laces and check underneath the pillow for the biscuit.
It isn’t there. Not even crumbs.
Then you look in the drawer of the bedside table. There is nothing there either, except a book containing the inviolable word of god.
Nothing but disappointment in those drawers.
In the en-suite bathroom, splashing your face with cold water, you notice that your bags have been placed, side by side, in the bathtub.