It had just stopped raining heavily when Flora Hawkins walked out of the station and looked around for a cab. She walked straight into a puddle of water, attentive to the straps of her luggage but inattentive to where she put her feet. Her shoes were drenched, the cold of the water was stinging her feet through the socks, and she sighed to herself, wondering what she had let herself in for. Her fiancé had invited her to spend Christmas with his family, but they had no room. They lived in a semi-detached terraced house and space had to be found for Henry’s older married sister Margery and her brood of children too. Flora was reduced to seeking accommodation at one of the local hotels. Henry had not offered to make reservations for her. He had not even come to pick her up at the station. He was at a house-party somewhere gulping down beer served in oversized tumblers and eagerly mingling with the other girls; girls who were not as boring as her.
He had simply told her to text him her address once she found a place to stay. He had said he would come to collect her at lunch time tomorrow and then he would introduce her to his parents.
Flora felt a flutter in her heart whenever she thought of this. She concentrated only on this single thought and not on Henry’s negligence. She forced herself to put one foot in front of another, bowing her head against the freezing wind which fanned her hair across her back and bought tears to her eyes.
She was also short of cash and did not want to enter one of these large hotels next to the station which looked as if they only catered to tourists. Hitching her bag over her shoulder more securely and clasping her suitcase more firmly, she trudged onwards. At one of the intersections – a little bit tucked away into a side alley, not clearly visible from the High Street, she saw a cozy looking motel. A fire gleamed in the grate. ‘Bull’s Eye,’ the board said and Flora pulled her baggage through the door dizzy with relief.
The lounge where she sat was empty, and she walked up to the fireplace leaving her suitcase and duffel bag scattered on the warm brown carpet. As she warmed her hands in front of the fire she felt a slight pricking at the back of her neck. She slapped her palm at the back of her neck to still the pricking sensation and again held her hands out towards the fire. Suddenly she felt a chill sweep over her. She looked towards the revolving doors which granted access to the hotel wondering whether someone had come in, bringing with them a gust of wind, but the door to the hotel remained firmly shut. There was a clamor of voices and the clatter of cutlery coming from the dining room a little way further into the hotel, but this small enclosed lounge on the left-hand side of the revolving door dominated by a sofa, two armchairs, a small circular table, a footstool and the blazing fire, was still and empty.
She decided to pick up her luggage and move to noisy eating area that was separated by half open glass panes and where the reception also was. She could see a girl pushing a plate of fries across the counter to a man holding a bacon sandwich and she could also see a ledger on the same desk, and a silver bell. She had grasped the handle of her suitcase when she felt a draught of air around her ankles. She pulled her sodden socks higher up her legs swearing under her breath when she felt that there was someone else in the room with her. She felt this as a man would sense a presence in the darkness. She turned looked at the two armchairs, and then at the empty sofa. Suddenly frightened out of her wits, Flora’s first instinct was to phone Henry, but what could she have said, there is someone in the room with me whom I can’t see?
She left her luggage lying on the carpet and fled to the dining room where she couldn’t ring the bell properly because her hands were shaking so much. Mercifully the cacophony of the bell was not needed. Someone had noticed her from the opposite end of the room. It was the cashier at the desk who was doubling up as a waitress. She smiled, showing large strong white teeth and Flora felt at a loss as to what to say to her.
After she had paid for the room, Flora was given the keys. Reassured by the heavy weight of the keys and clutching them as a drowning sailor clutches at shipwreck, Flora made her way back to the lounge to retrieve her discarded luggage. She noticed that there was a slumbering dog with a shiny brown coat like velvet snoozing peacefully. She had seen no dog about the place so was a bit surprised but she didn’t pay much thought to it except being careful with her bags and walking on tiptoe. It looked so snug that it would have been a shame to wake it.
Her room was on the first floor, and the waitress helped her with the bags when she noticed how clumsily Flora was dragging them up the stairs. The waitress chatted nonstop, asking her where she was from, but Flora found she could not pay much attention. Her mind was still on that brown dog that had seemingly appeared out of nowhere.
Her room was large and bare. And cold. She switched on the small portable heater she found in the cupboard, attaching its plug to a socket in the wall and fiddled with the knobs of the radiator turning them this way and that. She wished she had bought her hot water bottle. The quilts on the bed smelled musty, so she got out her own blanket and snuggled under it, opening the novel that she had bought with her. She had folded the corner of the page she was on in a small triangle and now the book automatically fell open at the page she wanted and began reading.
After some time of reading, Flora heard an unusual noise. After what seemed like an interminable age there was a sound like a scratching on the door. A cold wind seemed to seep into the room, making the hair on her arms rise. She felt as if a thousand icicles were dug into her skin and her teeth chattered. The window was fastened tight shut. She could see that through the half open curtains that there was no way to account for the sudden gust of wind in her room. She pulled her quilt over her head and shut her eyes tightly as if frozen with fright.
The next morning in the breakfast room the cashier wanted to know how she took her coffee. She said black, though she never took anything that strong ever. Today is an exception if she wanted to stay awake. There was a guidebook on the table listing attractions for tourists around the city she wanted to read in the breakfast room. She read in the brochure that in the 1950’s the hotel she was staying at was considered haunted! A brown dog was seen by many people, who later died under mysterious circumstances. The hauntings and mysterious death of the dog lead to the hotel’s closure before being renovated and refurbished in 2002 by the nephew of the original owners. Since its reopening, no deaths had occurred, but its haunted reputation persisted leading to it being very difficult to book a room. Tourists came, half disbelieving, not frightened enough and fully expecting to see ghosts.
The possibility of ghosts intrigued people and many thought that if they did see a ghost it would be a trick designed by the hotel owners to give the place an opportunity to boost business.
She did not think that the dog she saw yesterday was the same one that they were referring too in the guidebook, though she acknowledged that it had appeared quite out of thin air. But whoever died of seeing a dog, Flora thought shaking her head in irritation.
She looked up from the thick guidebook, saw that she was standing in the lounge and suddenly such a heavy feeling of fright came over her that she dared not show her back to the room. She backed out of it slowly, without turning around, retracing her steps, one foot behind the other till she felt a glass pane behind her and then scrambled up to her room to safety.
Flora punched in Henry’s mobile number with trembling fingers and waited for his phone to ring but it came switched off. She went back to her room, clasping the guidebook to her chest, and lay face down on her bed until it was lunch time. At half past twelve Henry texted to say that he wouldn’t be able to make it, and that he would come at dinner time instead. Flora burst into a fit of uncontrollable weeping. After a while, she went to the mirror and brushed her hair and dabbed her nose with powder. She tried smiling before the mirror so that she could try the same smile at the shops without feeling self-conscious.
She took her purse to visit the shops and bought herself a new pair of shoes and a shiny cobalt lip gloss. She also bought some crisps and strolled to the canal next to the city center. Stared at the green water wondering what Henry would be doing right now. The trees in the city center had been festooned with Christmas lights and the chatter of the shoppers with their bulging bag reached her ears as if from a distance. Darkness started falling and the dial on her wristwatch said ten minutes to four. She decided it was time to turn back.
The girl with the dimpled smile was building up the fire in the lounge and Flora decided to get her book from her cold, bare room and sit downstairs instead. An elderly couple was already taking their places in the armchairs. Flora knew that she would not feel frightened if she had company. Henry was to come at six, and Flora decided that she would read until then. She opened her duffel bag and took out Mansfield Park and a slim volume of poetry. She bought herself a cup of coffee from the restaurant and then went to the lounge. She opened the volume of poems and let herself be sunk into a world where lovers netted the stars from the sky to make necklaces for those they kissed, the pale crescent of the moon a bangle for their women. Flora sighed to herself, her eyes scanning the block of text on the page for phrases which caught her attention and swam in her mind. After an hour or so the elderly couple rose up to go and Flora looked through the glass window at the dark outside where the headlights of the cars seemed like glow-worms. She thought of how she should take Henry to task, upbraid him for his carelessness and neglect were he ever to come. All of a sudden she thought she saw a reflection of a dog sitting in the armchair opposite. Startled, she looked around but the chair was empty. Her phone rang and she spoke into the receiver in a dry voice she didn’t recognize as her own. Henry said that he would be arriving in five minutes and that he had gone to someone’s house for lunch which was why he had to change his plans with her. He asked her whether or not she was angry and she said, ‘No’ because she knew that this was what he expected her to say.
Even as she was putting back her mobile on the table beside the sofa she knew there was someone in the room with her. A big brown dog that looked very different from how it looked last night. Its eyes were open (and red). It was sitting upright and alert and was staring at her. Flora was overcome by spasms of trembling. Her legs seemed as if they had turned to string. In the guidebook, it was written that the dog was believed to be an omen of death, and she suddenly knew with unnatural clarity that it was true and that this was the dog they were talking about.
The dog kept on looking at her and she tried to heave herself up from the sofa but couldn’t. Henry burst in soon after, hurrying through the revolving doors. ‘There you are,’ he exclaimed. She turned to him as if seeing him for the first time and put a finger to her lips, but somehow she knew that the spell was broken. Henry looked around.
“What?” he said, seeing no reason for keeping silent.
Flora saw that he was right as there was no dog on the chair anymore. It had vanished. Flora felt heartbroken. She got up and followed Henry mutely to his car. She handed him the keys to her room and some carefully rolled up cash. He went and got her luggage from her room and returned the key to the desk, while she sat in his car with her hands folded in her lap. The receptionist was asking him to sign the register and holding out a pen. Flora turned her face away. He came back whistling cheerfully to himself and suddenly Flora felt the futility of everything. She had an impulse to get out of the car but it was too late. Henry was already beside her asking her to fasten her seatbelt. Flora duly complied and Henry gave her a perfunctory peck on the cheek.
He was speeding even before he had left the town center. A van without headlights that Henry didn’t see coming caused him to swerve and run his car up the pavement. He applied the brakes but they still crashed into a lamppost with alarming force. The windshield splintered into a hundred pieces and Flora was flung against the dashboard. Pieces of glass twinkled all around her; she looked up at the star-spangled sky and felt her life leaching out of her upwards towards the heavens.