A short story by Amy Jardine
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I hadn’t had a drink for a hundred days. Then I dreamt that he took me back to The Sugar Hotel. He came into my dream on all fours. Just bowled right in, shaking his antlers. I stared at him, astonished. I held out my arms. All heart, speechless. You came back. He was clad in all kinds of furs and hides. His whiskery chin and slender white horns spiralled against his handsome golden antlers. He’s a patchwork beast. When he’s quick, he’s nothing but a sequence of shadows. Dusty devil. Diminutive, irresistible. “This place is a bit small,” he said, looking around my room. I held out my arms for him, beseechingly. You came back. “You couldn’t have any fun in here.” He turned this way and that. “It’s just my dream,” I said, a little wounded. “I can change it if you want.” I was in my bed. The devil was thinking. He crawled across me and levelled his yellow eyes with mine. I knew what he was going to say.
“Let’s go to the Sugar Hotel, then. We always have a good time there.”
We looked at each other. We lasted a minute or so, in equal silence. I could have said, as I had rehearsed so many times in my waking life: I don’t want to do that, I don’t want to go there. I can’t.
“You know you can do anything when you’re with me,” he said as he hauled me from the bed. “Why don’t you put a dress on?” He kissed me on the cheek: a grace note to his easy victory. “We always have a good time there, don’t we?”
“I know we do.” I was putting on a dress. “Can we really do this?” I asked him again, and he nodded.
“Why are you so afraid?” he laughed.
I shook my head. I opened my hands to touch his fur. I felt the flood of sweetness to my brain.
The Sugar Hotel is in an old tenement block in the greasiest part of the city. The Hotel grows all the time, parasitical, opening new rooms on further floors each year. Inside it is all dark doorways, cornices and hearths, curling staircases. Despite its inglorious reputation, one must present oneself respectable at the front door.
We arrived, upright, graceful, arm in arm. He was on his hind legs for the occasion. We were allowed in at once.
My heart started a happy patter. This was my favourite place. How could I ever have left it?
A smell of fine peat smoke reached us from the lounge. In there, I knew, were seats like baskets that would soften warmly under our weight, and dark bottles in droves, all along the bar. I felt the old, exquisite anticipation. I swooned. My whiskery friend held me up discreetly.
A man in a tweed suit took our money and handed us a card, and then he raised his eyes, lambent and superior, to the wall. The walls of the Sugar Hotel are papered with tartan, the floor carpeted in a pleasingly clashing tartan. Stag heads adorn the walls. I’ve never asked my antlered friend how he feels about that: his animal likeness nailed to the wall. My devil would no doubt say he’s more human than anything else.
One of the mounted severed heads wore a half-witted smile. The other stag’s protruding glass eyes gave it an unreliable look, amiable but a little frenzied.
With tremulous, regal exactitude, the man behind the desk explained that they only had one room left. Not often used. Up in the attic.
The lobby smelled of fried food and human decay. Then the peat smoke came once more, in a gentle swell. I heard a crackle of newly ignited earth from the lounge. I wanted to go directly to the fire and have a wee tipple there, but my devil thought we should go up to our room first, insinuating with his eyes that he’d stored a bottle about his many hides. He set off and I was helpless to follow. Arm in his arm, we passed the door to the lounge.
“Don’t look yet,” he said.
I took a glance, though. I looked for the tantalising fuss and whisper of people just warming up, the first whisky in their hands. I just had a second, but all I could catch were outlines. Outlines of invalids, fretful and silent, watching each other. I saw a woman whose eyes had slid downward into her grey cheeks.
“You looked,” he said as we climbed the stairs together.
“Not what you wanted?”
“I’m sure it’ll liven up soon.”
Our attic room was quiet. The bed was soft. The walls were white, and so perfectly clean they looked as if they were made of porcelain. Keenness made my hands shaky. At the Sugar Hotel, we always follow the same story. We drink, and then it begins.
We drink swift draughts straight from the glass neck. Roll into bed together. Turn our sore heads away from our troubles. Let our minds start swimming. Swim to that place where there is no doubt. Say it like it is. Declare ourselves invincible. Fall out of bed. Dance in lop-sided bliss. Our bodies are on fire.
Then I lose my shoes. We argue doggedly. Draw white trails on each other’s bodies with our fingernails. Smash glasses over each other’s heads. Fight doors that won’t open.
Give up. Vomit on cobblestones in a dark street, somewhere far away from the glittering Hotel.
Feel a painful, insistent, inexplicable gratitude. Feel certain dread, because I’m going to die, quite soon.
Forget this, forget everything. Touch the stones with my knees and then my cheeks. Fall asleep.
We lay in our porcelain room with a full bottle, demurely unopened.
“I hate anyone who says they’ve had enough of the Sugar Hotel. They’re all a bunch of bastards,” I said. It was a satisfying declaration. I sank into the bed. I wondered when he would start to unravel me, lusciously, into the drifts of white quilt.
“You’ll feel terrible in the morning.” He wagged his finger at me. “You always do, you know that. They eject you in the middle of the night and you wake up in the street without your shoes. Terrible policy, for a hotel.”
“Who cares? It’s worth it.”
“You always say that.”
“It doesn’t matter. Once I’m better – and I’ve found my shoes – I’ll just come back.”
“What if you can’t come back?”
“That would never happen.”
“But what if it did happen? What if you could never come back here?”
“Why are you trying to start a fight?”
“I just want to know,” he shrugged, unruffled. “What would you do?”
“Well obviously,” I leaned across the bed, “If I couldn’t come back here, I wouldn’t want to be alive anymore.”
He laughed. “Oh, you don’t have to be alive to stay here.”
“You are trying to start a fight.” I heaped my face into the pillow.
He propped himself up on his elbow and studied me. “I’m surprised at you.”
I felt as if he’d rolled me out of bed and thrown me down several flights of stairs. Didn’t we come to the bedroom to lay kisses upon each other’s shoulders? I lay very still, desperate to recover our serene porcelain evening, our private preamble. I looked at the unopened bottle. Once we’d had a few drinks we’d be back on track.
“Well I guess you could stay here all the time,” he said solicitously, and kissed me. “I’m sorry. Do you want to go downstairs for a drink?”
“It’s a bit of a dive.” I tried to sound half-hearted, but my heart was all there, all ready.
“Then you’ll dive right in.”
We linked arms and took the stairs at an unhurried pace. Despite our bickering in the bedroom, I was sure that the devil and I still had a wonderful night ahead. From now on, it would be perfect.
What waited for us down in the lounge? Queenly revelry. Remembered camaraderie. Old friends who had waltzed with me. I felt the bliss of complacence. This was the place where I was loved.
What else was down there? My memory for faces was blitzed long ago. I couldn’t put a name to any one person. But I remembered white fingernail trails I had drawn across others’ bodies – exalted shining skin – a long time ago. Phantasmal tenderness. Lips hot against my listening ear. Friends waiting for me and voices calling to me.
The lounge was always so warm and booze-sodden, like an underwater climate in which we swam deafly around each other. Heartsick and nostalgic for dry land, we would gather and sing our eerie underwater songs together. We all held hands so no one would drift off. I was never worried. I was loved. I was one of the lucky ones, safe with the devil on my side.
“Have a drink, honey,” he always said. Then late in the night, I would get into trouble, and he would wander off, unable to explain himself. I’d be caught by the hotel staff for some misdemeanour, hauled out, sent sailing into the street.
I remember people warning me, “Your friend isn’t reliable; he’s not really your friend.”
“But I am myself when I’m with him,” I’d reply.
I’d be thrown out into the street and I’d land on the cobbles without my shoes. My friend – who remained upright and in his right mind, with an unflagging heart, and the jewelled weight of his antlers intact – would wait indoors until I came back.
Returning to the Sugar Hotel the next night, dressed up to the nines, I would say, “It was worth it, though, right?” because I loved to make him laugh.
We stood in the doorway to the lounge. It had not livened up. I looked down at the stains on the jaunty tartan carpet, including, no doubt, blood from all the twinkling glasses merrily launched in combat.
“It’s not what is was. It used to be great.” He stared dolefully through the doorway into the lounge.
“Don’t say that.” I searched the dim shapes of the interior. I just had to find a pal, someone I knew, and we’d be alright. Then we could start our wonderful night in The Sugar Hotel.
The devil watched me searching.
Now the night was fleeced of any charm. I thought I saw some people I knew, but wasn’t sure. They were all sitting very still. Hinges of elbows and knees had jammed. Grins had calcified and couldn’t be unstuck. The residents of the lounge, I saw now, were cadavers.
I head a ping. One of the cadavers waved at me mechanically, his shrunken flesh set in motion by a timer.
Eyelids slowly lifted on the hanging face of the woman I’d seen earlier. Her left shoulder had sunken into her body.
“Will you settle in?” called a voice.
“There,” I said, in a panic of happiness. “That must be someone I know! So we can go in now, can’t we?”
He turned away from the doorway.
“I don’t mind.” He was sanguine. “You could leave forever and never come back.”
I stared at him. “So why did you take me back here, then?”
“Oh, I’m just having fun.” He kept his laughter quietly in his eyes. “You’ve been away for so long. I just wanted to see if you would still do everything I tell you to.”
I loved his dust-shape, his elegant haunches. I loved the raggedy splendour of his old fur. I loved the way he lowered his sore bull head to mine so we could stand, forehead to forehead, considering things. I could not imagine a life in which he was not there by my side in the Sugar Hotel.
I wilted in the doorway, leaned my hot head against his fur.
“I don’t think I have a choice.”
“You’ve always had a choice.” He was tickled. “You know that.”
Amy Jardine grew up in the Highlands and now lives and works in Glasgow, and writes in her spare time. Her writing has appeared in the Glad Rag and the Scottish Review.