Robert, Run (1)

Robert wears only his underpants, which are damp with sweat. He has spread-eagled himself on the narrow bed in the room in the London hotel. It is August. The room is cheap and tiny and has become a kind of furnace. His underpants, as the sweat evaporates, are the coolest part of him. He closes his eyes. He can hear the groan and clunk of the lift in the lift shaft. Somebody coughs in the room next door and drops a suitcase on the floor. It is as if the sounds are watching him.

Smearing the film of sweat from under his eye-sockets he opens his eyes again. The room has a window – a small square with twisted black bars across it. He tried to open it as soon as he came into the room, but it refused. He looks more closely. Someone has painted it shut. Through a brown film of grime he can make out a section of fire escape and part of a white metal cabinet with gills, which may be part of the air-conditioning system of the hotel next door.

London up in the air is as confusing as London at street level. He can’t work out which sections of the roofing felt, brick and tile jigsaw out there belong to which building. He wonders how he would get out onto the fire escape, and suddenly desperately wants to do that, to climb down. He sees the shadows of two pigeons preening and strutting, which comforts him a little. There are other soft, wild things like him and Rabbit moving about in the world still.

He can’t believe that a room can be so narrow. His single bed is pushed up against one wall, the door right behind his head. Between the edge of the bed and the other wall is a space about as wide as a chair, except there is no chair. There are two electric fans, on white stalks. He has positioned them one at the head and one at the foot of the bed, and together they are so noisy he can’t imagine he will sleep. It is 3 o’clock in the afternoon. He cannot imagine he is meant to spend the rest of the afternoon and all of the night in here, on his own, but he doesn’t know what else to do. He doesn’t know anywhere to go in London and the thought of plunging out onto those streets, so stuffed with jostling strangers, saps his courage. He feels like Rabbit, caught in some sort of headlights.

He was frightened all the way on the train. On the tube he had to get out two stops early as more people crammed into the carriage, their blank faces ballooning huge and white as they loomed towards him. Nowhere to move without touching other human flesh; nowhere to look without bisecting another human’s gaze. More and more edged in – breathing, coughing, jostling, sweating. If Robert had been next to the door he might have been able to stand it, but he was hemmed in at the back. He rehearsed what he would say to get out:

Excuse me. Excuse me, please. Excuse me. Excuse me please. My stop. Excuse me please.

In the event, when the doors at last slid open he said nothing, simply closed his eyes and pushed until he stood on some unknown platform, an unknown distance away from the hotel.

The taxi driver had not been able to find the hotel at first and had driven around the same square of narrow side-roads four times before letting his passenger escape, having been tipped at four times the going rate. The girl on the telephone had told him Muriel, the Producer, or one of her assistants, would meet him in the lobby, but there was no one. When he asked the Receptionist where all the TV people were she said they had gone off together to get something to eat.

It is now 3 in the afternoon. Robert has had nothing to eat since breakfast time. He wonders how he will get anything. He is thirsty. There is only half a lukewarm bottle of water left from the journey. He doesn’t feel like a Finalist. He misses Rabbit.

There is a TV in his room. He switches it on and watches a quiz show. The colour is peculiar. The people have green edges around them. The sound is fuzzy too. He makes a plan. He writes it down in a notebook he has brought:

I will wait till tomorrow morning. If no TV people have come by then I will pack my case and creep away. I will walk to the station this time. I will not take a taxi or go on the tube. I will have to buy a map because I don’t know the way to it. There may be a map-shop on this road. I could ask someone where a map-shop is.

He reads it out loud to himself several times. He hopes the TV people have paid the hotel bill. He has visions of being pursued into the street by the hotel receptionist demanding cash or he can never go home. Eventually, despite the sweat, and the noise from the two fans, he sleeps.



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