by S A McMahon
It was rare that my work forced me to travel away from home, but every now and again it did. This was one of those occasions and I was displeased with the prospect of two nights alone in a far off town, away from my creature comforts.
My employer practically begged me, saying there was no one else better qualified to attend the conference; that I’d be doing her and the company a great service if I agreed to go. I admit I felt a mixture of guilt and professional pride, and I suspect this was her intent.
So I packed a small bag and taking one last mournful look around at the familiarity of my little flat, I headed out to the railway station. The train journey was lengthy and uneventful, in a stuffy, uncomfortable carriage. I felt disgruntled by boredom and self-sacrificial woe the entire journey. Eventually we reached my stop. The end of the line. My destination.
The sky was pulling its drapes across, darkening the town, as I exited the small barren station to survey the main street of the place where I was to spend the next couple of days. I had expected a little more from the description my employer had given. From what I’d been told this was a once popular, attractive and historic Victorian seaside resort. However, the echoing emptiness of the street, the barren shop fronts of boarded up businesses, with their rattling metal shutters, was a sorry greeting.
Litter rustled against the toe of my boot and a light breeze deepened into the full chill of a sea gust as I went in search of my accommodation.
A dog’s bark broke the quiet. I quickly looked around me to see if the beast was on the prowl, but no, I remained alone.
I did however spot a glow from a hotel sign a short distance up a side road. I pulled out the small note on which my employer had scribbled the hotel address. In the gloom I could just make out the lettering. Yes, this was the place.
It didn’t looking particularly welcoming, even from this distance but it was surely better than the feeling of isolation swallowing me up on the deserted street.
The door bell tinkled dustily as I pushed my way in. The heavy wooden doors were hindered by a mound of aging envelopes and yellowed newspapers stacked behind them. Manhandling my suitcase, I did my best to rearrange them into a stable pile and made my way to the front desk.
I now noticed that the hotelier had been seated behind the desk watching my struggle with the paper mountain. In the low light of the hotel lobby, an elderly woman with sandy greying hair piled high. Her skin was olive and her dress a drab caramel brown. I was taken aback. Why hadn’t they come to my assistance? How very rude.
I debated whether to turn around and walk out but I’d already placed my reservation letter on the desk while I was setting down my valise and the silent hotelier had quickly snatched it up then dropped it back down with a set of room keys.
‘Room six,’ was all she said.
Weary from the journey, I resigned myself to staying put and picked up the keys.
It was a tired old hotel. I made my way to my room past shabby furniture, wallpaper
streaked with grubby marks and light fittings with lacey hangings of dust.
My room was much the same, bedecked with woodworm marked furniture, saggy
cushions and poorly hung drapes. The walls were largely bare but for one octagonal
mirror, placed at an oddly high angle on one wall. Cherubs and scrolls were set in its
frame, glowing where the gilt had not worn away. Its curious nature held my gaze
for some time.
I was unsure why it should hold me in thrall. Later, as I lay in bed, my eye was drawn
back to it. In the dim light its glass gave the impression of a scene of rippled brown
toned sand against a calm grey sea. A fanciful notion maybe for what was evidently
part of the reflected wall and ceiling of my room.
As usual, I slept lightly, ready to find fear in the creakings of my surroundings. Why
should it be any different, in this unfriendly hotel? Indeed it was worse. Every footstep
that passed my room had me holding my breath, every crack of floorboards or clunk
of furniture caused me to twitch and pull the covers tighter.
I must have succumbed to sleep at some point - before I knew it morning was peering
in at me through the gaping curtains. I washed and dressed quickly, happy to be able
to exit the room.
The hotel dining room was empty. I was unperturbed by the solitude. It was a state I knew well – it was rare for me to eat in company. No one came to serve me so I helped myself from the breakfast buffet, picking up a handful of fruit to place in my bag.
The conference was a listless affair. Leaden voiced speakers droning on endlessly on unexciting topics. It suited my general demeanour and I understood why my employer had thought me the best choice for the trip.
My mind drifted back to the mirror.
Much as I dreaded returning to the run-down hotel, I felt desperate to leave the conference and return my gaze to that strange glass. I know it sounds deranged, but I was eager to inspect it, try to understand it.
Soon the day’s tasks were over and I managed a swift exit without too many goodbyes to my fellow conference drones.
I found myself seated in the dark of my room, my neck cranked painfully upwards. I could not tell you how long I had been sitting like this.
Maybe I had drifted into a trance, or a dream, as I again saw in the mirror the imagined coast line. It was as if I could feel the push of the wind and smell the scents of sand and sea air, and I swear I heard my name, warping in the wind, the direction of the caller unclear.
I placed a chair beneath the mirror and hoisted myself up onto it. Now I was at eye level. I was of course reflected in the glass, but behind me was the soft yellow of rippled sand with the blue green line of the sea beyond it.
I turned on the chair to check my location. Yes, I was still in the hotel room with my possessions on the bed and the dresser. Yet when I returned to the mirror, all I could see was the shoreline.
I reached slowly to touch the frame. I felt foolish but pulled at the gilding, lifting and twisting the mirror to peer behind it. The backing appeared to be solid and I carefully released it back in to its former position.
Emboldened by this, I found that if I pushed the mirror a little the surface felt cool and fluid, as if in motion. When I withdrew my hand, my fingers were wet and I breathed in the same briny scent I had imagined earlier.
The glass began to take on a mercurial quality, pushing itself forward, arching in to the room. I was held in its gaze, my image moving with the liquid, filling the reflector as its surface swayed and bulged.
Compelled once more, I pushed my trembling fingers into the swirling glass. It felt oddly dense, unlike water, yet it soaked my sleeve. I allowed the strange liquid to circle around each finger and trace patterns across my palms. Then, a sudden effervescence and a pulling on my hand as I was forcibly moved forward. Like water being sucked down a drain I entered the mirror.
Eyes aflame with a salty sting and throat clogged, I coughed and spluttered, then looked around. I had been deposited into the same see and washed up on the same beach I’d seen in the mirror.
Across the warm saffron sand dunes came the lyric sound of children’s singsong games. It seemed to draw closer and I sat up. There were children scrabbling towards me, laughing as they slipped and swayed, their feet unsteady on the dry shifting sands. I realised I’d been holding my breath.
The children laughed and darted around me. Their excitement was contagious and I laughed with them as they grabbed my fingers and wrists, urging me up.
‘Come on, come home, Mama, we’ve all waited so long for you.’
Mama? Their mother? How could that be? Yet it felt right. It fitted me, snug and warm, and I realised how so very alone I’d been on the other side of the glass. All felt right, now. I knew that I was part of them and they were part of me. I was home.