The newspapers had promised ‘apocalyptic snow’ but Alice Li ignored them. They were always predicting blizzards and gales when the sky delivered only drizzle and damp breeze. But as the afternoon wore on she was forced to concede that, this time, they were right. The flakes fell in sheets and driving became impossible.
‘…being advised to stay indoors and only travel if essential…’ said a voice on the radio.
She wasn’t going to make Manchester, not today. Even if she could get there, the Mayor’s office would be shut and the meetings she had scheduled would certainly be cancelled. When she saw a lorry that had skidded into the verge, its trailer tipped, surrounded by blue lights and high-visibility jackets, she decided there was no other choice but to find a hotel.
Of course Nina wouldn’t be happy, even though it was she who had told Alice not to cancel the trip, pointing to the swimlane chart and the scheduled deliverables. ‘There are too many dependencies,’ she’d said. ‘Or do you want to tell Stephen that he’ll have to tell the Minister that we’re going to have to cancel the announcement in February?’ Alice certainly didn’t want to do that. It would be severely career limiting, as Nina liked to put it. Alice hadn’t worked flat out, from school to college to university to Fast Stream without a pause, only to let the weather get in the way.
The next junction was for Wolverhampton. Alice came off the motorway, struggling up the off-ramp in low gear, wheels slipping in the thickening snow. After following a loop and curl of two-lane road thick with grey sludge, Alice saw the neon light of the Sleeping Beauty Motel – a concrete slab standing proud in a whited-out car park. She pulled in and crawled across the blank space, windscreen wipers scooping gobs of snow back and forth, and parked as close to the front door as possible.
She turned off the engine and the radio faded away. She breathed out with relief, uncomfortably aware of the pumping of her heart.
Fortunately, she’d brought an overnight bag with a change of blouse, socks and underwear, because local authority types sometimes changed the times of meetings at the last minute. She took the bag from the passenger seat, along with her quilted coat, and stepped out into the blizzard.
The gale fluttered and snapped across the empty retail park, hurling snow around and over her. It whooped in her ears and instantly petrified her hands, lips and cheeks. The few steps to the concrete canopy felt like half a mile.
She rushed through the automatic doors and into the warm yellow of the hotel reception. Her body convulsed with shivering as the doors snapped shut and silence fell, except for the royalty-free ambient music drifting, bassless, from hidden speakers. Everything was beige. ‘We regret that our restaurant is closed due to staff shortages’ read a sign on a metal stand in front of a darkened dining hall.
There was nobody at the desk.
Alice stood on the spot and waited. She sighed. The space was blandly peaceful and, for a moment at least, there was nothing she could or should be doing. Then she frowned: except, of course, she ought to call Nina to confess, and call Manchester to let them know, and call Sue in central services to authorise the payment for a hotel not on the approved supplier’s list and…
A movement in her peripheral vision caused her to spin to the left, towards the lifts. There was nobody there but she thought she caught a glimpse of a sliding shadow reflected in the polished steel of the lift doors.
Alice started at the sudden sound of a voice from her right, at the reception desk.
‘Do you have a reservation with us today?’
He was a tall, lean young man with very black skin and a name badge that read EMMANUEL next to English and Italian flags. He wasn’t smiling and before she could answer, he spoke again with a mournful note in his voice.
‘Terrible weather, innit? I can’t go home tonight. I gotta stay here.’
Alice smiled tightly, humping the bag back onto her shoulder.
‘I had to come off the motorway,’ she said. ‘It was getting dangerous out there.’
Emmanuel waited, staring, then repeated his question: ‘Do you have a reservation?’
‘Oh, uh, no. I’d like a single room for one night, please, if that’s at all possible,’ she said.
This prompted Emmanuel to move to the next section of the script. He took her name, address, asked to see ID, and took credit card details. He then made a keycard for room 804, sliding it across the counter.
‘Top floor, good view, very quiet.’
‘Many guests today?’
Emmanuel shook his head like a doctor sharing bad news about a terminal patient.
She took the lift up eight floors. Synthesised jazz-funk played. She stepped out onto a long corridor lined with doors. There was a window at the far end, plastered with snow and glowing white. She found her room easily enough and let herself in, dumping the bag on the bed.
The room smelled of cigarettes, despite the multiple warning signs forbidding smoking, and everything was scuffed, chipped or discoloured. The bed was soft, though, and the duvet heavy. There were thick white towels, a desk, a kettle and a TV. She didn’t need much else. She even had a couple of packets of instant ramen and a plastic bowl in her emergency overnight bag so she wouldn’t need to order room service.
Emmanuel had no doubt oversold the view but there was no way to be sure. All she could see from the window was a shifting, warping wall of white. If she peered hard, she thought she could just discern the edge of the car park as a thumb-smear of pale grey across the canvas. She watched a figure move through the blizzard and was struck by how little this person seemed to be hampered by the wind or cold. A dark, dogged speck almost gliding towards the hotel.
Her phone rang. Rushing to her bag, fumbling, fingers still numb, she answered. It was Nina.
‘How are you, Alice? Safe, I hope? I’ve been watching the news.’
‘Yes, thank you. I didn’t make it to Manchester, I’m afraid. I’ve had to pull off the M6 and find a hotel.’
‘Oh, right – what a shame.’
Nina was clever. She never said or wrote anything that could possibly sting her during an union intervention or employment tribunal. Alice had worked with her long enough, however, to tell that she was furious.
‘I don’t want to add to your burden when no doubt you’re no doubt already feeling at least a little stressed–’ She gave her dusty, mummified laugh.
‘Oh, no, I’m fine, but–’
‘– with end-user outcomes in mind, it would be good if you could arrange a video conference or phone call so we can get this squared away on schedule.’
‘I’ll see what I can do,’ said Alice.
Nina left a silence just long enough let Alice know how disappointed she was with this weak response and then said: ‘Great, thanks, do keep me in the loop.’
Alice called Sue who tried to convince Alice to drive to another hotel five miles away, because it was on the Department’s approved list. Alice explained that it was impossible and Sue said: ‘Fine, right, so, um, if you could just put that in writing, for the record…’ To cover your arse, thought Alice, but agreed to do as Sue had asked.
She set up her laptop on the scratched desk and then realised there was no wi-fi in the hotel. She checked her phone and realised she had no data connection there, either, perhaps because of the storm. No video-conference with Manchester, then, and no emails to Sue or anyone else. It was only two o’clock and she ought to do some kind of work, but what? There was a paper for the board due, perhaps she could work on that, offline.
She glanced at the bed. The drive had been exhausting and it couldn’t hurt to sit for two minutes. Then, once she’d sat down, she couldn’t resist the temptation to lie down – just for a moment. Kicking off her low-heeled shoes, she reclined and knitted her fingers over her belly. It was a long time since she’d found herself anywhere near a bed during the day. Even at weekends, she usually ended up working, or worrying about work, with no time for naps. But there, in the muffled gale and the soft blue snow light, she released a thirty-year-long sigh.
* * *
Arms flinging out in terror, a numb-tongued shout into complete darkness.
Alice thrashed until she woke herself up. She rubbed gum from her eyes and saliva from her cheek. She remembered where she was and groaned. She held a hand to her aching head. Did she have Paracetamol in her bag? Or maybe some water would do the job.
She listened to the room for a moment. It seemed to hold the echo of a sound, the scene of someone recently departed. She would have to remember to double lock the door and maybe put a chair in front of it.
The window was yellow, now – fluorescent retail park lighting diffused by snow emulsified in the swirling air. Alice lowered her feet to the floor and stumbled stiffly to the bathroom. She couldn’t find the light switch at first and then, when she did, it didn’t seem to work, so she drank lukewarm water from the tap, feeling her way with her fingers.
She hoped Nina hadn’t called while she was sleeping. She wondered if she ought to work now, until late, to make up the time.
There was a knock at the door.
What was this? Emmanuel, perhaps, coming to tell her the hotel was closing? Or bringing an extra blanket, maybe – the room did feel cold.
She peered through the peephole. The fish-eye showed an empty corridor – though only just vacated, Alice knew, somehow. An oddly familiar sweet tobacco tang caught at the edge of her senses. She sniffed but couldn’t catch it again.
Alice snapped the door open and stepped out. Left, nothing, but to the right, disappearing around the corner, the last glimpse of a shape in black.
‘Hello? Did you knock on my door?’ Alice called into the empty hall. There was no reply. ‘Did you… did you want something? Hello?’
Breaking into an ungainly half-jog, she made it to the corner but all she found was a hundred metres of mottled carpet, thirty brown doors and the green glow of a fire exit sign.
* * *
The next morning, she could hear the silence of the snow. It had stopped falling but not before covering her car, the car park, and most of the details of the landscape for miles around. She checked her phone and found it had no connection at all.
‘Morning, madam,’ said a weary Emmanuel when she went down for breakfast. ‘I’m so sorry to say that we are snowed in completely.’
She glanced towards the sliding doors. They had been locked off and presented a wall of grey-blue. There was a slit of sunlight at the top.
‘There are very much worse places to be, however,’ said Emmanuel. ‘Plenty of food, good emergency generator if, God forbid it, the electricity lines come down, and of course more than fifty TV channels.’
‘Got any books?’
Emmanuel gave a nod-shake-bow.
‘Oh, yes, plenty of books. People leave them behind. I will bring out a box for you to take your pick after breakfast.’
He gestured towards the dining room and Alice followed the line indicated by his long fingers.
The dining room was as big as a school hall and the five other guests had arranged themselves, as British people always will, so as to leave the maximum possible space between themselves.
A man with a bald brown head and a wrinkled shirt; a muscular builder with a slogan in Polish on his T-shirt and paint-spattered boots; a miserable middle-aged couple staring at their phones; and, finally, what looked like an old lady dressed in black – a hump of dark, dusty cotton, a curl of grey hair. She was in a corner facing the wall, pouring green tea from an iron pot into a dainty cup with no handles.
Alice looked for a seat. The necessary distancing calculations ran in her head and she deposited her key on a table away from the window, near the toasters, and went to fetch coffee and juice.
A radio murmured. ‘…since the winter of 1963, according to the Met Office. Further snowfall is expected later today with storms clearing by midnight, leaving a bright, clear day across the country from tomorrow morning. Now, let’s see if these lads can get those motorways moving – it’s Mike and the Mechanics.’
Emmanuel came through the dining room stopping at each occupied table – one, two, three, four, then Alice.
‘No cooked breakfast today, I’m afraid – no cooks! But we have toast, pastries, cereals and if you like, I can boil an egg.’ He gritted his yellow teeth in a tense smile and she knew that having to boil an egg would make him very unhappy, so she shook her head.
‘Toast is fine.’
As he began to move away, she grabbed at his sleeve.
He stopped, looked panicked, and rubbed his arm where the fabric had been pinched.
‘Can I have a pot of green tea?’
Emmanuel shook his head and stuck out his bottom lip.
‘We don’t have green tea, sorry – only summer berry, fresh peppermint, soothing camomile and traditional English breakfast.’
He drifted away.
Alice, irritated, looked towards the old woman’s table. She was gone and the table was clear. There was no teapot, no teacup, no sign that she had ever existed.
After breakfast, Alice looked through the box of paperbacks in reception for something to read once the board paper was drafted – the only piece of work she could do. She actually wanted to read a thriller but a voice in her head tutted at her, told her it would be a waste of precious time, so she took a copy of Bleak House instead.
Throughout the whole of the day, she didn’t read a single page. She didn’t write anything worthwhile, either, only moving around the words she’d already produced for the executive summary. At first, she reproached herself for her idleness, until logic won out: what could she do? Nothing. It wasn’t her fault. So, slowly, she began to think about starting to consider the vague possibility of relaxing.
She watched the window turn from white to blue to orange. She ate a limp room service pizza that Emmanuel microwaved. Finally, she did something she hadn’t done since she was a little girl: she turned on the TV and watched nothing in particular, for hours, until she began to drowse.
She didn’t sleep that night, not exactly. Hotel rooms are never really dark, even with the lights off and curtains drawn, because there’s always a glow leaking from somewhere – under the door, the air-conditioning control panel, the gap at the top of the curtains – so she lay in the almost-blackness, at turns fretting and fantasising.
After a series of short, disturbing nightmares, none of which she could quite remember even though they left her heart knocking, she got up to check the time. Three thirty three.
Then a memory came, or a memory of a dream: the veined hands of an old woman setting and then winding a bedside alarm clock – one of those clamshell clocks designed for travel.
‘Three-thirty three, all the threes, very lucky,’ Alice muttered to herself. She frowned. She didn’t believe in any of that stuff. Neither did her parents.
She got up and walked, stretching and yawning, to the window. Pulling back the curtain, she looked over the car park. The snow had stopped and the air was clear so that distant lights picked out hillsides and suburbs.
Squinting, she peered at the off-white sheet through which a stripe had been ploughed, right up the front door of the hotel.
There was somebody down there, waiting, in the middle of the channel in the snow.
A black shape, small and crooked – a figure that, for the first time, she recognised without doubt.
Alice let the curtain fall back and stood in the almost-darkness listening to the hum of the heating and her own short, fast breaths.
She dressed quickly, pulling on her quilted coat and unsuitable shoes, and slipped out of the room, letting the door close with a whisper of insulation on wood.
The corridor was cold and smelled stale. The lights were on but flickered sickly in her periphery. She took the stairs, not the lift, and entered reception through a fire door beside a set of vending machines. The sliding doors had been cleared of snow, now, and had become murky mirrors with the night behind them. She punched a green button and, after a moment, the doors opened.
She stepped into the cold. Her breath condensed, creating a wavering veil that came and went. Brown grit ground beneath her feet as she stepped slowly, reluctantly, towards the old woman.
Yes, it was definitely her. She was wearing the clothes she always had one when she visited or when they went out for dinner – a two-piece suit with thick seams, as stiff as cardboard. The polished black handbag gleamed. Her tights sagged around her bony knees. The black pumps she always wore pointed inward.
Alice didn’t want to look at her face. She was afraid it would be decayed or distorted. As she came within a few steps, she felt her eyes being pulled upward. Her heart thumped. Her face was perfect, exactly as it had been when Alice last saw it twenty-five years before. Her eyes weren’t filmed or fogged but wet and glowing. She looked at Alice with a severe expression, expectant.
The air seemed heavy with static and sweet with perfume – Yardley English Lavender mixed with a background note of clove.
Alice wondered what she was supposed to do. Then she heard her own voice, dead against the surrounding snow.
‘Are you proud of me, Grandma?’
She didn’t know what had made her ask that question but she knew the answer was important.
Grandma’s face opened in a smile as warm as midday sun.
‘Of course I am.’
The electricity intensified, the perfume bloomed, and somehow Alice Li both passed out and woke up at the same moment.