I'm The Screen
In this late autumn he became the night receptionist of the Palatine Hotel situated past the bars and restaurants on the main drag of Wilmslow Road. The job title contained a multitude. He arranged taxis and repairs and bin collections and alarm calls. He poured shots and made breakfast. He helped guests to their rooms when they were too drunk to walk, he listened to them when they became lost and tearful and handled them when they got violent. In a suit and tie he gave directions and succour.
Even in this grinding winter and the depths of recession the Palatine did steady business. It was an easy route to the centre of town, also to the conference centres and sports bars of Didsbury and Fallowfield and the universities and MRI on Oxford Road. Omniscient in sobriety he sat behind the desk with his book and saw the guests when they checked in, when they struggled in from the clubs at night, and covered with an embarrassed smile the insult or proposition the next morning. He got to know the public sector managers and business executives who booked in for conferences on council procurement post spending review and call centre management award ceremonies and panel discussions on sickle cell anaemia and the future of the printer cartridge market. He got to know those gentlemen of the road who travelled the highways of England selling pulse oximeters, commercial cleaning equipment, IT accessories. He got to know the musicians who stayed when they had gigs at the Academy or the MEN Arena, and dispensed numbers for reliable dealers and escort agencies. And he got to know the dealers and prostitutes, too.
The six to six made a vampire of Steve Anderson. For him more than anyone this winter was an uninterrupted darkness. Not a problem. Reminded him of being on call. Rediscover the highs of lucidity and relentlessness. Plug yourself into this organism. At strange moments questions appeared in his head – what is death like? Will I ever be loved? Scraping the grease off the fryer or digging someone’s car out of the snow a line from REM would come to him: I’m the screen. I’m the screen. I work at night...
‘You know you guys have such a poor attitude to weather,’ a particle physicist from Boston said to him. ‘Back home it snowed all the time and no one ever missed work. If something was closed you knew about it.’ Sometimes she said abote. Sometimes she said aboot. He thought of South Park and kept a straight face. ‘You would turn on the radio in the morning and there would be a list of schools and plants that were closed. And then what we’d do? We’d go to the common with bottles and make big forts and walls of snow. We’d throw snowballs at each other until the sun went down and then we’d drink from the bottles.’
He worked Christmas Day at time and a half. Loads of people were stranded in the hotel because of Heathrow bullshit and train strikes: he thought the Boston particle physicist would have had something to say about that. Here, too, he researched transport connections, punched zeroes into switchboards and did his best to reunite sundered families. He sympathised with their fury and distress but could not understand it. He had never dreamed of the family around the table and kids running everywhere. A child protection policy officer stopped crying for a moment to ask him if he was going home for Christmas, but it didn’t seem the moment to reveal that he had not been invited back to his parents’ house or even spoken to them since his disgrace and departure from the medical profession.
The working year began again and the days he slept through got longer. Anderson continued to fulfill the impulses of his guests no matter how pedantic or obtuse. Help me write this PowerPoint presentation at three in the morning? Hold my head up while I puke? You got it. He knew customer service. He was therapist, advocate, accountant, labourer, bodyguard. It seemed that the darkness of this winter would never end and that he never wanted it to end.
At some point in early January and the mid evening a Texan liver specialist rang down for a bottle of house red and something called a ‘poorboy’ which turned out to be a baguette sandwich. The Texan specialist had been in the Palatine for a week and rarely left her room and only called down for food and drink. He managed to sort out the order, and went up there to find the Texan wild-eyed and burned out from the lecture she had to give to the medical school the next day. He made to leave but she stayed him with a flap of a hand.
‘Ah, Jesus fucking Christ, thank god you’re there. I’ve been completely isolated and working on this for hours.’ Wine splashed into the glass. She poured some for Anderson. ‘I can’t leave post,’ Anderson said. ‘I got to be on the desk, for guests.’
‘Come on. That’s an order.’ She offered a cigarette. Fuck it, the bell was connected to his pager, it was a Thursday night with one third capacity. He lit up.
‘So how’s the liver article?’
‘Don’t talk to me about livers. I never want to open up a guy’s chest again. I’ve been here for hours, surrounded by myself and my profession, I don’t want to talk about myself. I’m at the stage where I feel everything would be okey fine if the core of my self just escaped my chest and dissolved in the air or in another person. Tell me about you.’
‘I’m in my thirties, I work on the desk downstairs. I rent a flat from the Sainsbury’s up the road.’
‘Not enough.’ She slapped a hand on the bed. Anderson sat down. ‘Do you find now that life is basically work? Does it worry you that life gets faster and faster? Does it bother you that you can count your spaces of free time as islands of light in the darkness? Do you ever think of coming up for air?’