There was a haze in the distance, down in the valley.
That’s not unusual, at that time of day, at that time of year. The temperature falls quickly in the afternoon and gossamer threads of mist form lower down.
Sure enough, as I descended past bare rock ribs and winter-brown clumps of bracken, I entered that haze, a Pernod of thickening fog. As I continued, broad, squat shapes emerged, great tumbled boulders that at some point had detached themselves from the crags above and careered down the slopes. Trees began to appear, shades and shadows on the edge of vision, barely noticed on the edge of the gloaming.
By the time, I reached the thicker woodland of the valley floor and wet fallen leaves were clinging to my boots; it felt very cold. My head-torch was switched on, but it was only of value if I pointed it directly before my feet. Aimed straight ahead or to either side, it just illuminated milky-white mist.
Finally, the track reached the road. It was dark as well as foggy, now. The last bus of the afternoon had long gone so I turned left and padded steadily along the tarmac. I tried to think of the last person I’d met, or the last person I’d even seen. Probably the tiny stick figures I’d seen on top of Helvellyn from the frosty sunshine of my own peak.
On this early winter night there were no cars from which to beg a lift, but it was only two miles to the hotel. I was approaching the first lights of the straggling village, perhaps 25 minutes after joining the road, when the haze finally cleared, suddenly, like a cinema special effect. Then I was walking through a sharp, clear winter’s evening with the first glinting of frost on the tarmac. I could see the village lights reflected on the lake, without a ripple anywhere. In the heart of the village, I reached the great, gaunt oblong of the Victorian hotel, not as grand as it once was, perhaps, but still an imposing presence.
I’m more of a youth hostel kind of guy but there had been a deal on, and I was glad I’d booked in for dinner. I scraped my feet on the step (always respect the carpet) and burled in through the revolving door. I nodded to the girl at reception and received what I thought was a rather frosty look; surprising, as she was the one who had checked me in the day before. Had a day on the hills made me look so wild, so different?
I took the lift up to the second floor, walked towards my room and fished in my pockets for my key. It was one of those things like credit cards that you wave in front of an electronic pad.
I couldn’t find it.
I rifled through my wallet, emptied it, ransacked my rucksack, pulled everything out of the pockets in my jacket and my trousers. There was no sign of it.
I took the lift back down to reception. There was a mirror in the lift, and I practised looking contrite, appropriate to having lost a key. Back on the ground floor, I approached the girl, the person who had been a smiling picture of welcome the night before. She was a stern presence tonight. ‘I’m Mr McCall, from Room 241,’ I said. ‘You checked me in last night. I’m afraid I’m just back from the hills and I seem to have lost my key.’
She clattered her purple-sculpted fingernails on the keyboard. ‘I’m sorry, we don’t have a record of a Mr McCall on the system. And Room 241 is occupied by… someone else.’
‘What? But you checked me in last night! Like I said. Just after six. It was you. You must remember?’
‘No, sir, I don’t recall having seen you before. However, we do have vacancies. Do you want to book in?’
‘I am booked in! I’m in Room 241! All my clothes are in there! My suitcase, everything!’
She must have pressed some sort of panic button because a manager appeared, an older woman, suave and smart-suited but with a hint of steel beneath the surface.
‘Can we help you, sir? I’m Ms Dennold, the duty manager.’
I explained the situation, trying to keep the lid on my anger, trying to calm the rising panic.
She took over from the girl, who moved smoothly along the desk to deal with some new arrivals who were looking at me and wondering what sort of a clientele they’d elected to share a building with.
Ms Dennold talked in smooth, emollient tones, but she was telling me the same story as the girl when I saw a waiter emerging from the restaurant.
‘Look!’ I said. ‘He was the waiter who took me into breakfast this morning. We had a good chat. He’ll remember me.’
Ms Dennold brought him over. I remembered his name as Piet, but he denied knowing me, said he’d never seen me before.
‘I’m really afraid there’s nothing we can do,’ said Ms Dennold. ‘We have no record of you, no memory of you. Perhaps you’d like to have a seat in the lounge for a while and consider whether you’d like to book a room for tonight?’
Giving you a chance to contact security, I thought to myself.
There was a man watching me as I took a seat in the lounge. Another walker, a middle-aged man in olive breeches and a Berghaus cagoule unzipped in the hotel warmth.
He came over to me after I had sat down.
‘I hope you don’t mind me having a word,’ he said, sitting down on the other side of a glass-topped coffee table from me. ‘I overheard some of your conversation at the reception desk.’
‘I don’t know what they’re up to,’ I said. ‘They seem to have lost all record of me.’
‘It’s not your fault.’ He paused, then, with what seemed considerable effort, spoke again. ‘You came through the haze, yes?’
‘When you came off the fells. You walked through a thick haze?’
‘Well, yes, I came through some fog like you often get on evenings like this. What’s that got to do with anything?’
‘This isn’t fog. Not normal fog. It’s something… I don’t know. The haze in Grisedale-it was Grisedale you came through, wasn’t it?’
This shook me. How had he known?
‘The haze… the haze in Grisedale. It changes things. People, lives, stories, worlds. When you come through it, you’re a different person, in a different place.’
I was beginning to wonder just how deranged the man was.
‘I’m the same person I was…’
‘Or sometimes you come back to the same place, but everything about it has changed.’
Now, I really was looking at him as if he were mad. Perhaps he was.
‘Look, this really is all nonsense. Where are you getting it from?’
‘I came through the haze, what, a week ago? My wife and I were staying in a B and B in the village. When I got back there was no car, no wife, no booking and the landlady I’d got on really well with threatened to call the police.’
It was a tale of madness, but the telling of it had begun to draw me in.
‘Haven’t you phoned your wife at home?’
‘I’ve tried to, but now I have no wife. Not here, not now.’
‘Then how do you know all this?’
He paused again, licked his lips, breathed deeply, and began to speak again. ‘I came here, to this hotel. You can spend a lot of time in the lounge, and no one bothers you. Then this woman came up to me, a walker, just like you, just like me. Friendly, middle-aged woman. She told me everything I’ve told you, and that when the haze appeared again, she would now be free to go through it, and see if it would take her back to her real life. Then it would be my job to wait until the next person to come through the haze, to welcome them, and then I could try to return. And now, here you are.’
‘How did you know it was me?’
‘I knew. Just like the woman knew it was me. Just as you’ll know…’
We sat in silence for a while.
The story made no sense.
But what, really, ever made sense?
‘The weather is set fair for a day or two. If the next person comes quickly, you may be able to try to get home quickly.’
‘Can’t I go now?’
‘No. It doesn’t work that way. I don’t know what would happen to you. But it wouldn’t be good. I recommend that you book in here – no, really, swallow your pride and book in. Wait for the next person. You’ll meet them here, they always come here. Maybe that’s why there are always so many lost-looking, confused-looking people in hotel lounges all over the world. Anyway, you’ll know when the right person comes. Then you’ll be able to escape from this.’ He rolled his head to indicate the totality of our time-prison.
‘When we go back through the haze, where will we end up?’
‘Back where we came from, I hope,’ he smiled, weakly, ‘but I really don’t know.’
He started to zip up his Berghaus.
‘You’re going now?’
‘It’s cold and there’s no wind. The haze should still be there.’
He stood up, shouldered a small Karrimor rucksack and, with a smile, walked straight for the revolving door.
That was five days ago. I haven’t seen him since. I hope he’s back where he started; I fear he may have entered an entirely new nightmare.
As he suggested, I booked into the hotel. The credit card I possessed in this reality seemed to work at any rate. Hopefully, though, I won’t need to check out. Not here, anyway.
The weather has turned mild and wet, and the haze hasn’t been seen for a few days. I keep looking for the next time-refugee.
I really hope they come soon.
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