The Backwards Man
The hotel itself was fit for a king. From the astounding paintings to the combination of wallpaper and carpeting, all were rich in colour and design. Every piece of furniture seemed to be made with precision and care, from the finest of materials. The staff were courteous, groomed and welcoming. The feeling each guest felt as they entered was both warm and inspiring. To be so well looked after would make anyone let their guard down.
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Upon entering, David felt the same feelings.
“Here we are, Margret,” David told his wife who followed close behind. “Dry air, warmth and an escape from your kin.”
“Don’t be like that,” Margret murmured. “It’s such a shame they couldn’t come.”
“Do you think they got the letters on time?”
“I believe so, the postal service hasn’t let us down yet.”
“Still, couldn’t we have sent a telegram to confirm?”
“Margret, please, leave it be.”
David’s answers were short and secretive. It was easy for his wife to see through the lies. David realised this when he turned to take his wife’s coat. Her narrowed eyes slowly unravelled his cool and found the truth.
“You never sent the letters,” she whispered.
David breathed in.
“No, I didn’t.”
David was unwavering, as was his wife. With tight-lipped fury, she marched past him to the check-in counter. As she spoke with the man behind the counter, David distracted himself with his surroundings. There weren’t any others in the lobby, save for a bellhop. He stood by the stairs, arms behind his back and eyes forward. David admired the formality in his stance, reminded of his time in the army.
Margret thanked the man behind the counter, taking the key he slid towards her, before crossing his arms behind him. He had the same demeanour as the bellhop, an air of professionalism that made Margret feel most secure in where they were staying. David gestured for the bellhop to take their luggage while the two walked after him.
“This is the kind of place we need to remember,” David began as the two walked arm-in-arm up the stairs.
Margret’s lips pressed into a thin line.
“Don’t be like that, you know why I didn’t send the letter.”
Again, no response.
“When’s the last time we had a-”
Before David could get into his explanations, a painting had fallen onto the stairs in front of them. The clatter of the canvas in the frame caused Margaret to jump and yelp, but David was unfazed. He knelt and collected the painting and placed it back on the hook. As he did, he examined the artwork, seeing that it was an oil rendition of the hotel staff.
The bellhops in red, the servants in deep blue and the managerial staff in black. All smart, all neutral in expression, all standing as the staff they saw stand in the lobby. David would have turned away after this glance, not paying it any more mind if it were not for what he saw in the background.
The background was that of the hotel, a lone figure standing at the door with his back to the viewer, but his arms were not crossed behind his back like the rest of the staff. It was the fact that this staff member was on his own and not showing his face that made David curious, but he was brought back to reality by his wife.
“David, tip the man.”
David marched up the stairs to find Margret standing with the bellhop by the first door on the right. Turning away from him, his wife entered the room while he fished a few coins out of his pocket. The bellhop didn’t even glance at the coins before pocketing them, only wishing them a pleasant stay before he descended towards the lobby.
The bellhop disappeared below, with his eyes forward and hands behind his back.
Having made peace over a room-service steak dinner, the couple enjoyed silence and wine as the night grew darker. While reading beside the fireplace, David looked up from his book and at his wife, whose eyes were slowly lowering. It was minutes before they finally closed, the book resting on her lap and her head slowly leaning against the chair. Once asleep, David climbed out of his chair and made his way towards the door.
Many careful movements later, David was closing the door to the room behind him as he walked down to the lobby. The check-in desk was manned by someone else, but that didn’t matter to David.
“Excuse me, do you have any cigarettes, cigars available?” David asked the clerk.
A brief exchange between the two and soon David was puffing a perfectly cut and lit cigar. He couldn’t help but smile and make conversation with the clerk. Although the man responded with sincerity, David sensed that it was all mechanical, robotic. The clerk only spoke with David out of politeness and not interest in the conversation.
Realising this, David nodded at the man and meandered towards the stairs, glancing at the painting he re-placed on the way up. Upon reaching the top of the stairs, he saw a man walking towards a door at the end of the hall. What caught David’s eye was the suit and stance. The man was the one from the painting, the one who stood facing the wrong direction.
David paused, staring straight at the back of the man’s head as he walked forward, hands in front of him. To David, this was most curious, as he had never seen anyone march forward so confidently with their hands crossed in front of them. The man took out a key, unlocked the door and entered, disappointing David as he didn’t show his face before closing the door.
The last of the cigar was burning at David’s fingers, reminding him that it was in his hand. Discarding the remains in a nearby ashtray, David returned to his room and found his wife leaning at an awkward angle in her chair. Being such a small, delicate woman, David had no problem lifting her in his arms and carrying her to bed with a smile on his face, which she returned.
“You smell,” she told him, although not angry about it. “Always set in your ways.”
“You knew that when you married me.”
“Mm, I did.”
After laying my wife in bed, I returned to the living room our suite provided. I was too restless to fall asleep, so I took up the nearest crystal bottle and poured some of its amber contents into a glass. The view from the hotel wasn’t great with so many buildings being built high around it. All I could see was a scrap of the night sky and meandering vagabonds searching for their next victim of petty thievery in the streets below.
I counted us lucky that we rode in on a coach from the train station rather than walking the few blocks. Had I been so stubborn about keeping the money the overpriced driver asked for, we might have encountered such unsavoury people before we reached the hotel.
My thoughts turned to ones of anger and fear, as I mentally placed myself in such a situation despite avoiding it entirely. My fury at being confronted, yet my fear should there be more than I could handle. I had heard enough stories in my time to know that the best solution in the face of danger is to run and come back when the odds are in your favour.
No matter how I altered my thoughts to suit me, I still found myself fighting a losing battle.
“Clearly I am a coward at heart,” I said through gritted teeth, annoyed that I couldn’t win fights in my own imagination.
I sat the empty glass down, somehow feeling more restless than I was before I drank any bourbon. With this annoyance boiling my blood, I decided to find entertainment in the hotel. I left my wife sleeping peacefully, jealous that her mind was so ready to fall in Morbius’ embrace.
When I left the room, I saw another one of the staff, one in red. He paused when we locked eyes.
“Do you have a pool room?” I asked.
“Yes, sir. Shall I lead you?”
“Not necessary, just tell me where.”
The man seemed to think about what to say before giving me a strange answer.
“It’s best if I lead, if you don’t mind, sir,” the man told me. “The hotel, especially this floor, was built a little strangely.”
I didn’t have the patience to argue, so I nodded and gestured with my right hand for him to lead. He nodded and off we went. We did not go up or downstairs, just marching further away from my room and taking so many turns it made me marvel at the jagged state everything was placed in. I could see why the staff thought people might struggle, it must have happened many times before.
To make matters worse, I did not see another staircase. Which meant many would have to find their way back to the entrance should they want to leave. These thoughts were not doing much for my restlessness, which is why when we finally reached the room with the snooker table I felt barely any relief.
I thanked the bellhop and proceeded to rack up my first game. I noticed he stayed at the entrance, flanking it like a red vase. I guessed he would be there until I was done so that he could lead me back. I was halfway through a game when I saw him turn and leave me alone. I didn’t say anything to stop him, because for what reason should I?
“No doubt off to get some sleep,” I murmured, undoing my jacket buttons so it didn’t pinch me under my arms while I took a difficult shot. “Everyone needs sleep, I need sleep, but not everyone can get any...especially me tonight.”
When I racked up my third game, I noticed my red vase had returned out of the corner of my eye. He stood still beside the dark hall that led back through the maze that was the second floor of the hotel.
“You don’t need to watch over me,” I told him without looking at him, taking another shot, but somehow the cue ball stopped dead before reaching my target. “I-”
I looked up at the bellhop and for a brief second, I saw the one with his back to me. Yet, upon closer inspection, I saw that the front of his chest was pointed at me, but not his head. I would have thought that his jacket might have been on backwards, but I could see where the chest swelled and receded to the stomach, the angle of the shoulders.
As if my realisation was forbidden, the lights went out.
I could still see the silhouette of the bellhop, edged by the cool light of the window. I saw him step towards me, into the shadow where I could not see him and then the lights came back. I was alone and the bellhop was gone. I felt a sudden pulse in my chest, which I realized was my heart beating again having stopped.
I didn’t know what to make of it. One side of my mind told me the worst and the other begged me to believe it was a trick. That my eyes were tired and could see properly. Of course, with no answer for me to happily choose, I decided to retreat to my room, marching into the hall. Along the way I dropped the cue stick I was still holding, not caring about how wrong it was to leave it lying in a hall.
After several turns, which I felt were right, I was rewarded for my memory with the sight of my hotel room door. I made it to the door when I felt eyes upon me. I looked away from the staircase, towards the door where I first saw the backwards man in the flesh. He stood just beyond an open door to a dark room at the end of the hall. It was hard to tell if he was looking at me when his head was facing the wrong way.
I kept my eyes on him, not daring to take them off as I opened the door to my room. I pushed it open, stepping in slowly, his sight only being cut by my vision by the wall. When I turned to look inside my room, I saw darkness and a face I knew was his, as if I had stepped into a room in the hall instead of my own. At once the door closed behind me and I was thrown into darkness, filled with fear.
The man’s face was indescribable, monstrous and I was trapped in the same room as him. I lunged to the door to open it, struggling with the doorknob. I was turning and pulling it with all my might and I would have liked to have thought the door would have come apart because of my adrenaline-fuelled strength, but it held strong.
The lights turned on.
“Dear, what’s going on?”
I turned to see my wife rubbing her tired eyes as she sat up in bed. When she focused and looked at me, it was with genuine curiosity. She was wondering why I was struggling to open the door, why I was looking around the room and turning now and then as I looked behind me.
We left that night. I took to the streets, with my wife trying to keep up. She was not happy, but not angry either. She could tell I was serious, not mad. If anything, she was worried about who we might encounter on our way to another hotel. Dark thoughts of cruel-looking men, desperate for coins and not unwilling to take it by force.
Yet, had we encountered one, I knew they could do nothing to stop me from putting as much distance between us and that creature.
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