The World Without Watercress

The man in the silver suit is asleep in the office. He's been here all night working for the Hotel; it would be foolish to begrudge him a rest. Even though he is not awake, his eyes are open. In the poor light of early morning they are black, turned inwards, without the gloss of animation. I sense he is testing his dreams, stockpiling the best for future use. No doubt there are nightmares waiting to be cleansed in the unconscious. I don't want to wake him, but I have questions that need answers and some of them are urgent. Nevertheless, I walk away, after tapping him softly on the arm: no point in expecting too much of him when he is so slow and somnolent.

I walk back into the long gallery with its sofas and wicker chairs, a place where the older residents used to relax after lunch, and then onto the balcony that runs the length of the building. It is divided into bays, each with round wrought-iron tables painted white; the chairs, which are made of the same material, are famously uncomfortable.

I lean over the wooden balustrade, look down at froth at the weir, the foam-scaled river in spate, the thickening green water that brushes the reeds on the margins, the snake-flash over stone as it heads downstream. Tall trees overhang both banks, leaving a sliver of sky; spring sunshine seeps down through the foliage, silver-plating the leaf-tops, before dissolving into a pale green shimmer and dark olive caves under the boughs. You can hear the waterfall that's higher up in the mountains.

To the best of my knowledge, the man in the silver suit and I have been the only people living here for six months. The Hotel cannot be approached from the road. In order to reach us you must take the path through the woods on the far side of the river and then cross the bridge. I like to think we will see you coming.

• • •

It is still just light when Mallison returns. I haven't seen him for well over a year, and this time he brings a companion, a slim young man dressed fashionably in black who is unknown to me. They make no attempt to enter the Hotel, even though Mallison knows there are so many rooms that eluding me would be easy once they are inside. Instead, his new friend and he go no further than a small cottage near the bridge. It is said locally this was once the home of a ferryman who charged a small amount to take travellers across to the Inn, which stood here in the days before they built the bridge and the Hotel. If that is so, then the river must have been a great deal more slothful than now.

Naturally, I am far from delighted at the reappearance of Mallison, a man whom I was never pleased to see even when I was far more tolerant. He will expect me to storm down and demand an explanation for his presence on my property. I have decided to wait. Apart from a natural distaste for confrontation bred by months of solitude, I am curious to understand his motives. He must be given time to show his hand.

• • •

As I go back into the office, the man in silver looks at me with blue, wide-awake eyes. He hasn't waited for instructions before starting work.

"Are there any messages?" I ask.

"Nothing you need to reply to."

"And the rooms?"

"No problems so far, but I'm still checking."

I pat him gently on the shoulder and walk over to the window. A faint mist is rising from the river even though there is none by the weir.

"We have guests at the cottage." I tell him.

"There's no way I can check on them."

"I know that. As long as they stay out there, there's no harm done. I just don't want them to get in. Do you understand?" I look him straight in the eye as I move towards him.

He doesn't answer, and for a moment I wonder whether to hire someone else to provide extra security, but then I remind of myself of the man's CV. He should be capable of handling any problems that arise.

I pick up a chair, take it back to the window, and stand on it. As far as I can see from this angle, there is no sign of activity in the cottage, but then Mallison never was an early riser.

• • •

No one knows how many rooms there are in the Hotel. Although we have the architect's original drawings, many alterations have been made over the years by different proprietors: rooms have been subdivided or knocked into one, ceilings lowered and then raised. At least one staircase has been torn out and two lifts installed. The attics are filled with unwanted furniture and the detritus of a hundred past enthusiasms. In its furthest reaches, the basement is abundant darkness and dust, filled with the dens of spiders, abandoned mattresses, and derelict white goods webbed with silk. Apart from trips to the wine cellar, conducted in the sallow luminosity cast by three naked light bulbs, it is seldom visited.

The first floor consists of bedrooms, each with its own balcony, and is so close to the river that the sound of water, skirting rocks and stones, sighing over the weir, lapping against the foundations of the Hotel, is always audible. A flight of stairs leads to the restaurant, the cocktail bar, the guests' lounge, the long gallery, the offices, reception, the kitchens and the back bar. This floor of the Hotel feels the most secure, although even here you will find doors and cupboards that may have remained unlocked for decades. The servants' quarters, further guest rooms and a number of spacious private suites, some of which were let to permanent residents until a year ago, are all on the third storey. The attics can only be reached with the use of a step-ladder.

In the hospitality trade, one is threatened every day. My motive for shutting the Hotel for a season is to have time to form an accurate picture of the nature and extent of my property. I wish to know the dimensions and state of repair of every room in the building, and make an inventory of all moveable goods, down to the last fork, spoon and knife. Once this is accomplished I will assess areas of weakness and disrepair. It will be possible to estimate what must be refurbished, replaced and rewired.

I have already ordered the new locks.

• • •

An incident that took place last Thursday shows my caution is not misguided. It was just before dusk and the green light shining in the river and trees was touched by the first shades of night blue. I had checked reception, the lounge, the cocktail bar, and the long gallery for guests who might have returned uninvited. I do not always visit the back bar, which was formerly the province of the hotel staff and a few local men, but an unaccountable conviction that there was someone on the second floor apart from myself and the man in silver led me to alter my routine.

The back bar takes its colours from the brown cliff seen through small leaded windows, the walnut panelling, the floorboards stained by generations of ale and ash, the brass gleam of the foot-rail, the ceiling richly yellow from years of rising smoke. It's a place for dark rust beers, stouts that catch the fire's chestnut gleam, delivery men in long, creased-parcel coats, men in caps who play cards, the dog with tobacco eyes, a copper warming-pan over the mantelpiece. In one corner of the room, out of place amongst the dart-board and the worn tables on which old men used to play cribbage, there's a wooden chest with brass studs. Its appearance suggests it might once have been used to store old silver, heirlooms or the deeds to a manor house. I have a few memories locked away in there.

Brevis was seated at the bar. Even though I rattled the keys and coins in my pocket, he did not look up from his glass of mild ale. He was a tired old man with red eyes and lank grey hair worn too long at the back. There was more than a hint of grey stubble on the upper lip, but nothing as decisive as a moustache. His manila-coloured overalls implied that he had come to move furniture or make a delivery, but I knew this was not the case.

"How did you get in here?"

He turned slowly towards me like some aged bloodhound whose long sleep by the fireside had been disturbed. I noticed that his lower lip was full and moist.

"I came through the door, didn't I?"

"It's locked. And as far as I am aware only my secretary and I have the key."

He made a noise a little like the start of a laugh. "She weren't locked if I've just walked through her."

I remember Brevis came to us from a different part of the country, where inanimate objects are frequently referred to in the feminine. It's a manner of speech some find charming. I do not.

"Are you insinuating you have a key?"

"No. I didn't say that. She were wide open, and so I comes in, don't I?"

Evidently there had been a major breach of security. I would have to take this up with the man in silver. Brevis was employed by the Hotel in some very minor capacity, I forget which. As far as I could recall, he had always been inoffensive. My first reaction was to throw him out, especially since he was clearly consuming alcohol at the Hotel's expense, but since he was here I used the opportunity to question him further.

"You do realise the Hotel is closed and all employees except for my personal secretary have been laid off. This bar is not open to the public until the major refurbishments are complete."

"Ah, but the back bar don't shut. That's the custom in these parts. She never closes."

"I'm the proprietor of this Hotel, and I decide these matters. As a matter of interest, has anyone else apart from you been using this bar since we shut?

"They might have been?"

"Who?"

"I didn't say I sees 'em. Just that they might've."

"If you agree to give me their names, I am prepared to overlook that you are drinking beer without having paid for it."

"I have paid. The money's in the box."

"Very well. If you tell me their names I am prepared to give you another bottle of mild ale on the house."

Brevis lifted his glass to his lips and then put it down. "Could have been Nookes or that Ben Tuddy."

"And Mallison?"

"Mallison? What would he be doing in here with the likes of us? We ain't got nothing for him."

"But Nookes and Tuddy. They've been in here drinking?"

"I didn't say that. I said they might've been. I ain't seen them. But there is one thing I can tell you."

"What's that?"

"If they ever was in here, why then they would have been drinking."

I let him drain the last drop of his ale and then marched him to the exit. As I shook the door-handle, for one terrible instant I thought it was locked and there would be no explaining how Brevis got in, but in fact it was only stiff and with one more tug I opened it wide enough to push the intruder out into the dusk. For an instant, his coat showed up, dry-leaf pale against the brown cliff, and then he was gone.

• • •

It is warm enough for me to sit outside on the balcony. The man in silver is at work in the office. He has been going through the box files to see if there is any record of Brevis, Nookes and Tuddy having had a grievance against the Hotel. I have positioned myself so I have the best possible view of the woods on the far side of the river. I can see the bridge and the ferryman's cottage. It's mid-day and a curiously pervasive green light infects not only the air, but all that composes the scene in front of me. Materials not naturally green, such as the grey stone of the cottage, have taken on a greenish tinge, and the wooden bridge is a shade closer than usual to verdancy. While I cannot say there is a single object that is obviously in motion when it should not be, the very faintest flicker is running through everything I see. I tell myself the explanation is simple. The strength of the sun at noon has been filtered by the leaves, bathing the scene in shimmering light. Yet in spite of this there is some indefinable increase in animation, even though there are no signs of creatures in the wood and the river flows more slothfully than for many weeks. I can hardly hear the waterfall and no spray rises from the trickle over the weir. Watching this, I long for the taste of pepper on the tongue: the innocence of watercress, which lives in air and water — most honest of herbs, specific against cancer and scurvy, rich in iron.

It's just past one when I spot a man walking down the path that leads to the far side of the bridge. I don't get a good look at him because he disappears behind the trees before I can focus properly.

I try to estimate exactly how far along the path he is. When he does not emerge as expected, I assume he must have retraced his steps — then he's there, walking along the bank. As he brushes away the overhanging branches and steps in and out of the dark green shadows, there is something very familiar about his gait. I know him well, but at first I can't, with certainty, put a name to him. He's just a little too far away and as he moves there is a strange tremor in the light, as if he is about to become the victim of an electrical accident. Then, quite quickly, everything steadies and he's at the far end of the bridge. Now I'm in no doubt who he is. It's Hensfirth, formerly one of my closest friends, now returned from abroad. At once, I'm filled with gratitude. Although we never quarrelled, it's been many years since we did more than exchange postcards; in fact, I'm sure I've heard nothing from him since I bought the Hotel. He must have gone to some trouble to track to me down. He's half way across the bridge now and I'm slightly envious to see he's hardly changed at all. Still slim and with all of his hair. I stand up and shout: "Hensfirth! I'll come down and open up." He sees me and waves cordially. It's then I notice he is wearing a garish shirt with a motif of palm trees and parrots. His long years in a far country have changed him; he was once famous for his good taste.

I go as quickly as possible down to reception and I'm slightly surprised to see he is already waiting outside the glass doors. Once again, he waves and I raise my right hand in acknowledgement. I'm only a foot away from the door when I realise something is wrong. He is exactly as I remember him. Not a grey hair or wrinkle in twenty years. And then there are his clothes. Not only is his shirt hideous, but he has two-tone shoes of the type that would only be worn while making a musical. I am about to put the key in the lock when he smiles. He has no teeth or tongue. I can see right through his mouth to the green air and the bank beyond. Mallison! But our security is working. Already he is as thin as paper. If I don't let him in, he'll vanish. For now.

• • •

Two weeks ago they began to come back. Normally I can't see them, the shopkeepers, merchants, travel agents, hawkers and insurance salesman who haunt reception. I often sense them following me, noting which rooms I visit most frequently, but it's easy enough to have them removed. The man in the silver suit tells me I may even need some of them. "They help the Hotel to run more smoothly. This one is well known to speed up the service from the kitchen," he claims. I'm not so sure. I hate it when they spring up right in front me, eyes eager with special offers, mouths agape, ready to pitch and patter. But it's the uninvited guests that trouble me the most.

This morning, when I passed through reception, I could see a few of them on the periphery of my vision, some no greater than a small square of sunshine, letting me know that they were available, willing to chat or sell. There was one who was completely visible at the top of the stairs, but inoffensive, no more than a price list and a claim to offer good value. But as I came into the cocktail lounge, there she was, completely naked, drinking at the bar. It could have been worse. At least she had her legs crossed and was looking at me in a way that was almost appealing, kindly rather than lascivious. Nevertheless, it was not what I wanted at nine-thirty in the morning. I turned and ran straight up to the office.

"Run a check immediately," I said. "One of them is in."

"Where?"

"In the cocktail lounge."

"Did you remember to shut the door."

"No, yes... I'm not certain."

There was silence as the man looked deeply into the files. I told myself that he was not taking any longer than usual. As I watched, his face blurred, turned slightly paler. The last thing I wanted was for him to fall ill with the weekend coming up, the surgeries closed, and the hospitals short-staffed.

It had been almost a year since his last collapse. Everything happened without warning. We'd been working on a project, exploring territory that was not on the map, when he stopped just as it seemed a request had been answered. We'd had a glimpse of what we were looking for when his face went white and his eyes glazed over in a way that told me the engines of intellect had ceased to run. I felt his wrist. There was still a faint pulse. I was lucky to get him into hospital immediately. Even emergency cases have been known to spend hours in the waiting-room. The specialist told me an infection had set in, but there was a chance of saving him if we got him into theatre immediately. He needed an operation and a blood transfusion. I went back to the hotel and waited. Whenever the phone rang, I expected to be told they hadn't been able to save him, but in fact he was back within the week.

And now it was happening again. I'd always suspected his system had not fully recovered from the first illness. A virus, they said, that had never been properly indentified. The treatment appeared to be working, but there was always the possibility of a relapse.

"Are you all right?" I asked.

He nodded like someone who has lost consciousness for a moment and is still groggy. His actions were slow, his hands moving through invisible honey. Any second now, he would be sucked down into sweet oblivion.

And then as suddenly as the attack had begun the blue light came back into his eyes. A deep calm settled over his features, but it was impossible to tell if something unknown and terrible had made itself at home inside him. I held my hand over his heart.

"Is it your old problem?"

"I don't know. I don't think so."

"Well, why don't you go back to sleep? Rest in for a little while. I can cope."

I went straight back down to the cocktail lounge. The woman at the bar had gone.

Nothing else of significance has happened today. I've no idea whether the woman went, taking the gold and cream tones of beautiful skin and her kindly smile with her. I cannot be sure whether she is an emissary of some desire that is real or a trick of Mallison's.

• • •

I've not slept for twenty-four hours and yet I cannot allow myself to sit down for a minute. With the man in the silver suit still asleep in the office, the entire responsibility for the security of the Hotel falls on me. I'm on the balcony outside the cocktail lounge.

About five minutes ago, the man in black came out of the ferryman's cottage and walked into the woods on the far side of the river. His presence has caused a disturbance I find hard to understand. It is not a matter of frenzied birds rising from the canopy or frightened animals scuttling through ferns. There is a change in the quality of light passing through the wood in a more or less straight line at about the height of the man. How can I explain it? It is as if someone is walking behind the trees and the bushes with a torch that has the capacity to turn colours darker. Is he about to alter the composition of the leaves, twigs, branches? He will do this work at a level that may not be visible to the naked eye. What I am witnessing is a preliminary to an event that will disrupt my experience of the Hotel, the river, the forest, the weir — the world as I currently know it. I am not sure if the man in black has an identity separate to Mallison or whether he is a projection of one aspect of his nature. Either way, I suspect the outcome will be the same.

I sit here for half an hour and then the wood appears to return to normal.

• • •

There is an intruder in the basement. I have just woken the man in the silver suit, but one side of his face is frozen, as if he had a stroke. A prolonged conversation with him is clearly not possible. He has only one message: the Hotel's security system has been breached. The source of this problem is obvious. I will have to go down there, but first I must return to the balcony. Although it is the middle of the morning, the green air is darker and the light trembles as if the sun's moving towards shut down. The river and its flow of information have dried up; even the facts of pebbles, mud, weeds and gravel have gone. I must hurry to stay quick.

At first, when I open the hatch, I'm relieved to see a light is on. At least it means I won't have to search for the switch on the staircase. Then I realise it is not the old yellow light cast by the three naked bulbs on the staircase; it is too bright, an electrical whiteness flashing blue. Very cautiously, thought by thought and step by step, I make my way down to the bottom. Something alive has got into the dust. The doors of the refrigerators are open and ablaze, revealing skeletal shelves; the floor has been infected by a strange luminescence; the spiders crackle like static. Then I see him.

Mallison, or his twin, is standing on a six-thick pile of mattresses. When he sees I have noticed him, he begins to bounce slowly up and down, as if threatening to trampoline. He is wearing a pin-striped suit over a T-shirt covered in mathematical symbols I do not understand. Almost bald apart from the curly black hair that covers his ears, he has a round jowly face and black stubble that rises close to his cheek bones. He opens his arms wide as he raises his eyes like a juggler watching the plates spin. Then he claps his hands together and jumps down onto the floor.

"You'll smash if I let you fall," he says.

"I have no idea what you mean."

"Do you really think I haven't found it? All your spot and wobble, scab, crudcake, little zitleak and slime?"

"I'm going to go upstairs now and bolt the door. If you want to stay down here, that's your business."

"Oh I see. I'm going to be put into isolation, am I?" As he speaks he raises one knee after the other, an athlete limbering up. He is wearing no shoes and his toenails are long and pointed like arrow-tips. "Quarantined. O.K. That's fine. So long as you don't mind sharing first?"

"Share what?"

"Oh, your nose-fluff, smutted flies, juice-lick of the apricot dream, your clotted tubs, skinned sticks and spoonful of honey-guts. What do you want be world-wide wise? Arseholes or watercress? That how they see you these days. You're either arseholes or watercress. Which are you going to be?"

"I think you better tell me what you want."

"Oh you know what I want. Why it's lit up all over my face in red letters."

I take out my card and move towards him. His mouth narrows to a slit. I know that there's no alternative. For now I will have to do as he says. I touch his cold face four times and watch as he swallows the card with the faintest whirr of satisfaction.

• • •

When I return from the basement, the rest of the Hotel is still there, but of course the money in the bar till has gone and there's nothing in the safe. It's not the end. I have other assets, but I'd be foolish to think that Mallinson won't be back for them if I stay. At least having paid will give me time to think.

I walk down into the back bar. Of course they are all in there now: Brevis, Nookes, Ben Tuddy and the others, drinking at my expense. But there has been no change in the quality of the soft brown light and I can see at a glance that my wooden chest has not been opened. I take out what I most need, but leave a few old photographs and newspaper clippings at the bottom. Anything that is completely empty always arouses suspicion.

Half an hour later, I've crossed the bridge, scrambled up the bank and made my way along the path that leads to the main highway out of here. I didn't even bother to check the garage. I knew the car would be gone. I'm off-road now and anyway it's better to travel without number-plates for a while. There is much I have to think through now that I've lost the Hotel. I know it will be a month or so before they search the premises and even longer before they find the man under the tallest tree in the forest, where I broke his silver heart and buried him. For the moment it's just me, walking. The cars, every one of them a name, pass me with their data of engine capacity, speed and colour; not one of them slows down. There's a brightness on the horizon and I can see the mounds of soft hills as innocent and green as watercress.

I am glad I've saved some memories of my time in the Hotel: sitting on the balcony at evening; hearing the stream running over stone as I lay in bed; the flames of the fire in the back bar reflected in a glass of deep brown ale; the bright water running over the weir; the languorous sigh of the waterfall high in the mountains. And, of course, a few moments it would be folly to mention.

The morning has lost the sallow light of a half-life. Everything, even the shadows, is more sharply defined; all sound has a presence, aspires to the condition of birdsong. But there are times when I am not sure which comes closer to the truth of my days: life in a Hotel or this walking, the unconnected moments coming towards me, one after another, each one begging me to believe in it. As I walk onwards, carrying nothing except for the disk in my pocket, the hills seem one instant further away, their green slopes almost a distant grey, and the next minute closer, smelling of grass. I know that if I can keep going I will reach them and taste the pepper in the headsprings of chalk-land streams. But it is so much nearer to the next service station, where they will provide everything I need, except watercress.


Charles Wilkinson's publications include The Pain Tree and Other Stories (London Magazine Editions, 2000). His stories appeared in Best Short Stories 1990 (Heinemann), Best English Short Stories 2 (Norton), Midwinter Mysteries (Little, Brown), Unthology (Unthank Books), Able Muse Review (USA) and in genre magazines/ anthologies such as Supernatural Tales, Horror Without Victims (Megazanthus Press), Sacrum Regnum, Rustblind and Silverbright (Eibonvale Press), Theaker's Quarterly Fiction and Shadows & Tall Trees (Canada). New short stories are forthcoming in Ninth Letter (USA) and Phantom Drift (USA). He lives in Powys, Wales, where he is heavily outnumbered by members of the ovine community.