Martha came back from the ladies’ loo, grinning like a Cheshire cat. “You’ll never believe who’s in the Gin Room!”
“That actor, what’s his name, you know, the one who looks like Tom Hanks.”
I racked my brains. “Oh, you mean the one who was in that film, oh, what was it called? About the Air Force, you know.”
“Yeah, that’s the one. Ooh, he’s so dishy.”
I took a sip of my vodka and lemon. “Actually, I don’t care for him.” I put my glass down. “I always think Vodka smells like cement glue, don’t you? You know, that stuff boys use to glue kits together.”
We were seated in the bar of the Priory Hotel, a quaint old place that comprised a network of small rooms, variously used for dining or just sitting, drinking and staring at ancient photographs on the walls. The Gin room was so-called as there were numerous empty gin bottles on shelves that covered two walls, the rest of the space being taken up by old books. I supposed the bottles were of renowned gins, if there were such things, otherwise why display them?
The manager, Saul, appeared, a large fellow with black collar-length hair and a beard. He smiled. “Good evening, Julie, good evening, Martha.”
“Hi Saul,” I said. We were regulars and had often spoken with him.
“Listen, we’ve got a rather famous visitor staying with us.”
“Yes, I just saw him,” said Martha, “isn’t it thrilling!”
“Well, we’ve a camera crew arriving soon, they’re doing a documentary about him.”
Martha laughed. “How lovely, I’ve always wanted to be on TV!”
Saul looked embarrassed. “Sorry, Martha, they don’t want anyone else around.”
I felt indignant. “What, we’ve only been here five minutes. Why should we have to push off cos of some ham actor?”
Saul dangled a key in front of us. “If you’d like to go up to this room, a waiter will bring you more drinks, and they’ll be on the house. We’ll call you to let you know when the coast is clear.”
Martha seemed to forget about the great actor. “Free drinks! OK, where’s this room?”
The room had a four-poster bed and two sofas. A huge, arched window looked out over lawns and, just below us, a pond covered with small green lily pads. It was a warm spring evening and I opened a pane, letting in the smell of freshly mown grass and the sound of birds singing. I laughed. “This is a bit of all right,” throwing myself down on the bed. The mattress was deep and enveloped me with its warmth. “Phone down and order us a bottle of chardonnay, hun. Maybe I’ll have a kip afterwards!”
“In a minute, I’m just going to the bathroom.”
There was a quiet knock on the door. I got up and opened it to a young girl, dressed in black, pulling a vacuum cleaner. She looked apologetic. “Sorry, I’ve got to clean this room.”
“What! Can’t you do it later, after whatshisname’s buggered off?”
The girl’s face flushed. “Sorry, we’ve had a late booking. It’s a doctor who’s very anxious that the room be spotless. He said he’ll be here in two hours.”
Martha appeared. “Look, tell you what, leave the vacuum cleaner with us and we’ll clean the room after we’ve had a drink.” Martha winked at me.
The girl looked down at her feet. “I don’t know. He’s very fussy.”
“Look, don’t worry, I used to clean at my dad’s hotel.” She winked at me again. “You go and take a break. Tell you what, come back in an hour and you can check it’s clean enough.”
Mollified, the girl left.
“What was that about?” I asked
“Look, we’ll do the old fuse trick, that’ll knacker the vacuum cleaner, then we can’t be blamed for not cleaning the room, can we?”
I looked out of a window to see a large van parked up on the narrow pavement and enormous quantities of gear in black wooden crates and aluminium flight cases being unloaded and brought into the hotel.
Suddenly there was a flash of flame and a loud bang. The wall socket where Martha had plugged the cleaner in for her ‘trick’ was covered in soot.
I flicked a light switch to check they were still working. They weren’t.
“Whoops,” said Martha.
Shortly, there came another, louder, knock on the door. It was Saul, red-faced and agitated. He looked at the sooty wall socket. “What on earth‘s going on? All the electrics have gone, in the rooms, in the kitchen. The fuse board’s up the creek. I’ve called an electrician. He reckons half an hour to get here and sort it out.”
“I don’t know,” said Martha, “the vacuum cleaner must have short-circuited.”
“What were you doing with the vacuum cleaner, for heaven’s sake?”
“Oh, I just fancied a spot of cleaning. I can’t help myself. Can we go down to the bar then?”
Saul looked like he was about to explode.
Just then, a famous face appeared at the door. “Excuse me, I hope you ladies won’t mind, but I want to keep out of the way of autograph hunters while they’re sorting the electrics out. Would you mind if I joined you? Saul, could you bring us a bottle of your best champagne, please?”
Martha looked at me, wide-eyed. Her face was flushed and her lips opened soundlessly. She looked like she was going to pass out.
“Yeah, that’ll be OK, take a pew,” I said, patting the unoccupied cushion next to me on the sofa. “My name’s Julie, but you can call me Juju.”
Featured in the book, Letters from Reuben and Other Stories: 40 Little Tales of Mirth
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