Tap tap tap at the door. I opened my eyes. ‘Check-out 10.30,’ said a neutral or possibly slightly hostile female voice on the other side of the door. I looked at my phone. As I looked, the clock changed from 10.29 to 10.30. Then I heard what I perceived to be the irritated rustling of a large plastic bag and receding carpeted footfalls.
This wasn’t a hotel as such. It was a ‘club’ into which non-members like myself are welcomed and charged slightly more than members. I’d chosen it because it was called the Penn club, and it was in Bloomsbury, and I’d seen it advertised in the Times Literary Supplement, and, being densely stupid, or romantic, or both, I had imagined it to be some sort of a writer’s club. This misapprehension was reinforced by the website’s trumpeting that John Wyndham wrote The Day of the Triffids there.
But the cooler reality was that the club was named after William Penn, early Quaker, founder of Pennsylvania, and it was run on Quaker principles of honesty and simplicity and integrity. So instead of being full of dissolute writers, as I’d hoped, the place was full of contemplative types, and there was a religious meeting in the Edward Cadbury room every evening between 9 and 10. I was there three days and nights, coming and going to parties. And in all the time I spent at the Penn club, you could have heard a pin drop. The guests I encountered on the stairs, or in the breakfast room, or in the Edward Cadbury room, were pleasant enough, but unsmiling and preoccupied, as though furiously wrestling with an eternal, intractable crossword clue. I don’t think I heard anyone laugh in all the time I was there. If I’d heard laughter I’d have been shocked.
But goodness me they run a tight ship at the Penn club. When it comes to checking-out time, those Quaker values of honesty and simplicity are trained on you like 10inch guns and they take no prisoners. Ten minutes after the first tapping on my door, there came another insistent tattoo. I opened my eyes again. ‘Check-out ten thirty,’ came the same dull voice again on the other side of the door. I made a sort of strangulated noise as an acknowledgment of my intention to rise, and the footsteps and rustling of plastic bags receded once more.
I flung back the duvet and stood up and shakily surveyed the room. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the state of a changing room after a Premiership football match. I have. It’s like a bomb has gone off in a pharmacy. The debris scattered about the floor of my room and on every surface was like that. To gather it all up and squeeze everything into my holdall appeared in prospect to be a Herculean labour. I went to the window and squinted out. Another day of blinding sunlight and heat. Only this time with no party at the end of it, only a seat in a midday train headed west, and with any luck a window to rest my head against. Among the debris I spotted a pair of suit trousers. Wobbling dangerously, I managed to get them on. Then yet more tapping on my door. I picked my way across the room and opened it. With touching faith in the masculine qualities, the cleaner had gone and fetched a man to get me out. I recognised this slight young one as one of the breakfast waiters. ‘Check out 10.30,’ he said, looking at me without blinking.
I looked at him across the threshold. His was the face of one who had experienced setback and disillusionment only, the result of which is a heroic indifference to life. My crapulence meant that I, too, was indifferent on a planetary scale that morning. But, still, I longed to say to him, look here, I’ve just been to three Spectator parties in three days and I’ve drunk about a million glasses of champagne. The great Taki was in town. He had fallen down the stairs and had to be helped up by the Prime Minister. I have touched the hem of Alexander Chancellor’s garment. I have stood in a garden within five yards of Joan Collins, Iain Duncan Smith and Jenny McCartney, and I have shaken hands, twice, with Mr Fraser Nelson.
I wanted to explain everything to the breakfast waiter with Quaker honesty and simplicity, then ask for forgiveness and a little rope. Another ten minutes, say. Please. I’ve had such a laugh. Give me a break. But finally his refusal to blink irritated me, so I smiled apologetically, closed the door gently in his face, and lay back down on the bed.
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