“Would you like brown or white toast?” asked the waitress.
And this puzzled me. Isn’t all toast brown? Or, at the very least, a bit browner than the base bread from which it was made. I couldn’t exactly say “hell, no, madame. Give me albino toast, whiter than the frozen and virginal wastes of Antarctica.”
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Our setting is the New England hotel, in Boston, Lincolnshire. The time was last Saturday. And the cast list is just me, on my lonesome, visiting my elderly Mum.
My needs were simple. All I wanted was a single room for the night. A bed, a bathroom, a television and a breakfast.
And that is what I got. Just about.
The hotel itself has that sort of shabby feel that is just a bit grander than functional. Everywhere you look there is dark wood and décor that so desperately wants to be grand but just ends up looking old. My room had a wardrobe and dressing table in dark oak, but a single bed made from plain steel girders. It seemed incongruous. The wooden furniture was 1950s Fawlty Towers level posh – the bed looked as if it had come straight from the nearest NHS hospital. Or prison.
The toilet was jammed in between a wall and shower with the barest amount of room to reverse into, provided that you retracted your wing mirrors and squeezed in your elbows. Forget about reading atop the throne. There was barely enough room to man-handle a paperback and certainly don’t think of the room you would need for a quality broadsheet.
There was an ironing board in the room, propped up against the wardrobe. I couldn’t help thinking of the thousands of travelling salesmen who had pressed their suit trousers on that ironing board. It was covered in possibly the most hideous floral pattern ever invented by man.
That was a weird image. Those walls must have seen decades of travelling salesmen standing in their underpants to iron their shiny suits on Grandma’s floral ironing board.
The one concession to modernity was that there was a solitary cushion on the bed. I wasn’t quite sure where to put this when I went to sleep, so it ended up on the floor. Which is where I suspect it spends most of its time.
There was a television that was so small that it was infringing on ipad dimensions. A remote control with no battery cover. It all worked, but there was no feeling of luxury or joy. And again I had a slightly uncomfortable image of the travelling salesman in his underpants watching soft-core porn on that telly.
The breakfast was actually very good, once I had got over the existential question of white toast. It was a properly cooked meal and not the usual hotel buffet of sorry-looking sausages and bacon drying out on hotplates.
But then came the moment that stuck in my mind. The incident that got me thinking, and prompted me to write this blog in the first place.
There was no-one at reception when I came to sign out. I waited for a while. Nothing.
Then I spotted it. There was a bell on the counter. One of those brass boob-shaped affairs with an oh-so tempting nipple button. The sort of thing that might form part of a Valkyrie’s armour or the costume for an early Madonna concert.
I am always in two minds about bells like that. Part of me (specifically my right index finger) itches to press them and hear that cheerful clang-ding sound that they make. I secretly long for an occasion when I can press the button and hear that sound. But another part of me (the essentially British bit) feels highly self-conscious about pressing the bell. We imagine that the staff might be annoyed at being summoned. It feels somehow a bit too American to want to press that bell.
And yet, a couple of minutes had elapsed. There was still no-one and no sign of life. So I did it. I pressed the nipple button.
Nothing. Not a peep. Not even a click.
And so I picked the bell up and examined it. As far as I could tell, not being an expert on these things, this was a totally dead bell. It had not worked in a long time.
Huh? All manner of possibilities exploded into my brain. Did the hotel know that the bell didn’t work, but kept it on the counter anyway? Maybe because it looked good?
Or perhaps the bell had been sabotaged by a disgruntled employee who was fed up with having to be summoned back to their post?
Maybe it was never meant to be a functional bell? Perhaps it was just an ornament.
Then again, maybe they didn’t know that the bell wasn’t working. It would be hard to spot an absence of sound and the British guests might be too polite to mention it.
More time passed. Then a new theory began to form. Perhaps the bell had been broken by people standing exactly at the same spot as me. Travelling salesmen with shiny suits and shiny palms who wanted to check out. People bashing desperately at the bell for ages trying to attract attention.
I had already paid for the room. When I had checked in, they had asked for payment in full and now I could see why. I left my key on the counter and walked out.
Don’t get me wrong. The hotel is perfectly fine. The breakfast was a thing of beauty. The room was functional, if not exactly luxurious. The television worked and the batteries didn’t fall out of the remote control. If I had wanted to stand in my underpants to iron my trousers I would have been very glad of that ironing board. The room was relatively cheap.
The thing that annoyed me is that they were one or two details away from being so much better. You can buy a counter top bell for £5. Sad git that I am, I’ve just googled it. It can’t be that hard to find an ironing board that you don’t need to wear a welder’s mask whilst using. Or the battery cover for a remote control.
Instead of trying to be more luxurious – which they are never going to achieve – it would not take much to get the little details right and be adequate.
And that, it seems, is a lesson for life. Whatever we do, whether it is writing books or cooking a meal or earning a living, it is those little details that trip us up.
There is a temptation to think that “it doesn’t matter”. It’s good enough. The TV remote control works without the battery cover. Hotel guests don’t complain about the counter bell not working. Readers of my book will forgive the occasional typo and misplaced comma.
Yes, well, maybe. But how much happier would they be if we got those details right?