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Migraine Diary 1 : The White Hotel

I was living in a small seaside town, a long way from anywhere else, in a white hotel on the sea front. The town was in a small bay, barely more than a dent in the coastline, bounded by crumbling cliffs of golden sandstone. At low tide, the sea drew out over glittering expanses of coarse, dark-gold sand, a beautiful grit that was coarse and rough underfoot. Wave-sculpted sandstone jutted out from the flat expanses of the sand, like the tips of icebergs from a golden sea, smooth low shapes near the water's edge, vast ridges, blocks, and wave-scoured pavements where the beach edged up to the cliff. The curve of a tarmac promenade, spidered with cracks and spattered with cracked golden rocks, made some pretense of holding back the cliff from the sea, but its rusted, twisted rail and decaying surface spoke of how little it was now used.

The White Hotel belonged to me, but my claim to it was tenuous, and I could not charge for the rooms. Instead I had invited friends to stay, and they in turn had invited their own friends, until I had become hostess to a shifting tangle of people whose boundaries and motivations I could not even guess at. I kept the house in order, I locked up at night, I checked the corridoors and divided the bills, but many in the rooms, would not know me as the owner, and some would not know me at all.

I spent my time trying to get to know other people in the town, perhaps reasoning that they would be the more permenant presences in my life, and therefore more able to help me hold onto the Hotel than my guests, who were temporary and awkward, demanding, yet impervious to my own needs, insubstantial, like ghosts or shadows.

I befriended a local artist, an old man with a beard, smart clothes and a boater, who took me out to the beach to show me where the local graffiti artists had sprayed their tags onto the water-scoured sandstone, where the paint would wash away with the top layer of the rock in barely a week. "For art created on rock," he said, "This is practically ephemeral."

The woman at the local shop seemed to like me, too, and would walk with me down to the waters' edge when the sun was on the sea, and we would stare out in silence across the brilliant, eye-watering burning sea, like hammered metal, like molten steel, like shimmering foil, like sun on a bright zinc roof, until our eyes could stand it no more, and we would go back dazzled, her to the shop, me to the Hotel, minds full of silence and light.

One day while we stood at the waters edge, I slowly became aware of a slender thread of grey, advancing from the horizon. We watched it for a while, as it grew bigger, not understanding what it was we were seeing. I felt my forehead begin to knot in puzzlement and glanced sideways in mute question and saw my companion's confusion in a sharp line between her eyebrows. I looked back, and still it was larger, a broadening dividing line of dark grey between the silver sea and the white sky. "It's a wave," breathed my companion. "A wave," I echoed. We watched it grow bigger, get closer, and as it came towards us I became aware of the others on the beach, fishermen, visitors, guests from the Hotel, all staring out to sea at the advancing wave, the wall of water coming home to the land.

The crowd broke and ran, dashing up the narrow lanes leading back from the seafront, spilling through doors and french windows, scattering into their homes and under their boats, into busshelters and shops and sheds and the one cosy pub, and I ran with them, heading for the White Hotel. I had not yet spent winter here, not heard the wind throw pebbles at the windows, the waves slap at the terrace walls. I didn't yet know what it would take to wash the mortar from between the white-washed bricks or shatter the small panes in the white-framed windows. I drew the glass doors of the restaurant room together and snapped the lock closed, wondering about open upstairs windows, exposed drains, the chairs on the terrace, the strength of the walls. It was close now, a speeding wall of towering grey water, dissolving my concerns into its hugeness, and I could hear the seething rushing of roaring water on water as I stared back into its immensity, it great grey vastness, and while the greater part of me wanted to watch, to see, to understand, some animal thread of self-preservation turned me away and as the wall of water towered, tottered, and broke over the shoreline, I cowered, my back to the water, my head covered by my arms, like a believer before the wrath of an angry god.

The water ran back to the sea, carving great runnels through the golden sand scattered with geraniums and roof tiles, fragments of wood and clumps of soil. The people emerged from their sluiced homes, shaking water from their hair and clutching nervous pets, staring out at the sea, like children betrayed by the irrational anger of a parent. The rest of the day was spent in assessing damage and making repairs, sweeping water out of doors, and retrieving washed-away pot-plants and laundry. I was remotely aware that the authorities had been contacted, and that an investigation would be underway as soon as the appropriate resources had been found.

For my part, the Hotel had suffered some cracked windows, and the terrace furniture was strewn across the beach, there was water in many of the rooms, and the kitchen was flooded. Setting this right occupied me completely, the mopping and the repairs and the sorting and the sweeping. It did not occur to me to ask my guests for help and it did not occur to them to help me, though some of them complained.

When I set out to retreive the furniture from the beach, I found that vast sections had had the sand scraped from them, leaving a scoured and tumbled mess of cracked flat rock scattered with great shattered boulders. The ornate white ironwork of the chairs was for the most part undamaged, though some were dented, and some were bent. As I hauled the last of the chairs up onto the terrace, I heard a shout go up. Another wave, they were saying. Another wave was coming.

And indeed I could feel it, though it was still too far off to see, like the press of a cold future bearing down on me, thickening the air, making sounds louder, colours harder. I set to the hotel without delay, threading the crook chains that kept the furniture safe overnight through armrest and table leg, tightening them to the last link and securing them with the heavy padlocks, sending word through the hotel that the windows should all be closed, setting boards against the outward-facing windows. Behind me, I could feel the wave coming, and I knew that I would not finish before the next wave came, but still I worked, quick and calm and efficient, until the water was a grey tower over me, and then I ran, and cowered in my kitchen while the wave broke over our town in a roaring rush of terrible water.

The waves continued to come. An investigation was started, but if they found out why, the information was not shared with me. Someone observed the effect from a helicopter, but I heard nothing more than that it had happened. I continued to prepare for the wave as it approached and repair the damage after its swell had subsided, taking obscure pleasure in the strength and resilience of the hotel.

Of the guests in the outward-facing rooms, some left town, and some stayed and set to sealing their windows. One took to looking out to sea at all times, waiting for waves. I wondered if he watched as the waves broke, but didn't ask him. Repairing the Hotel was taking up all my time, and the guests were beginning to feel like encumbrances, things that were getting between me and my preparations for the next wave.

Each time the wave drained back into the sea, a new and glorious beach was revealed. Bare rock, a mass of alien white sand, rocks twisted into tormented shapes by the rush of water, shells crushed to powder strewn across golden rocks.

But in time, the beach reasserted itself, and so did my days. The hotel was protected against the waves now, the outward-facing windows locked and boarded, the doors sealed tight with plastic draft excluders and extra deadlocks and everything that could be washed away chained down or gone already. Such guests as were left were well aware of my efforts to keep the water out and knew to keep everything closed when the waves came. Some houses in the town had gone, some parts of the promenade had been swept out to sea, but on the whole, things were returning to a stable state.

I put on my white dress and walked on the beach again, and the shopkeeper came down to the water's edge with me once more, though her face seemed grey in the strange afternoon light we got nowadays, and she looked older, careworn and though she still looked at the sea with love, it was love tempered by something; a rejection perhaps, or a betrayal.

We no longer watched from the waters edge, but from the edge of my terrace. The people were uneasy about going out onto the beach now, wary of trespassing into disputed territory.

I looked out my artist friend, and found him chattering to experts and investigators in the pub. His boater was gone, and he carried a satchel now, full to bursting of who-knows-what. We walked down to the beach together, and he took me along the crumbling promenade to show me the fresh faces of rock peeled open by the last wave, already scatted by black graffiti tags. There was much more graffiti than I remembered. "Lots of people in the town come down to tag the beach now," he said, "Even when the wave is approaching." He told me he was more interested in the sociological effects of the wave than in its status as a geographical or meteorlogical phenomenon, and that this was just as well, as all that the investigation had discovered was that the delay between the waves was decreasing. I left him measuring the extent of the reach of the graffiti, and boldly cut across the beach towards the Hotel. The next wave was not due for half a day, and I had plenty of time, but still I could not help glancing back nervously at the sea as my feet stumbled over the gouged and whorled rock and slid on pockets of wet sand, tangles of pulverised sea-life, animal and vegetable.

I reached the hotel in plenty of time to close up the doors and check the windows, and when the wave broke, I was sat alone by the unlit fire in the dim lobby, drinking raspberry tea.

The waves came closer and rose higher, and I began to see more of my guests. Most of us ate meals together most of the time now, and I was beginning to find it a nusciance to cook, to clean, to exchange pleasantries and answer questions for and with so many. As they drew closer to me, they seemed to expect me to take more of the responsibility, to look after them. I caught them being careless with windows and doors, and had to remonstrate with a man who had tried to prise open a window. They began to annoy me, with their endless talk of television series and role-playing games and their endless disputes about which was cooler or what was better or which one they wanted more. "It's subjective," I tried to say, "You can't win or lose arguments like this," but the words died in my throat, and I found myself standing on the edge of a conversation I could not join, mouthing words I had forgotten the meaning of.

The morning came and a wave was coming with it. "Everyone in!" I cried, and the guests scrambled to bring their breakfasts in through the boarded-up French Windows (the glass behind cracked and resealed and cracked again), out of the sun into the gloom. One of them, a man I had found more and more annoying, darted back out again, to see something, or fetch something, or get something, and he was taking too long, and pretending that I had not seen him go out, I slammed and secured the door, and crouched in the duck and cover position I still fell into whenever the wave came and I was in a sea-facing room, and the wave came down on us.

"You could have killed me!" he said. He had braced himself against the door, and had got wet, and had the breath smashed out of him, but was otherwise unharmed. "I thought everyone was inside," I lied, but he was right. I could have killed him. Maybe even wanted to kill him.

Perhaps it was time to stop running a hotel.

[ Next episode : A true and accurate account of the facts, as I experienced them ]