He is woken by the telephone ringing and ringing beside the bed. The room has grown dark while he has been asleep. One of the fans has stopped working. He points the remote control at the TV to silence it and picks up the phone.
“Oh, Robert,” the phone says. “Is that you?”
“Yes,” he says. “Who are you?”
“Amanda Peterson, Channel Three,” the voice says. He can tell by the tone of it, he was meant to know that. He falls silent.
“Amanda – from Make-up, just ringing to check you’ll be with me by eight sharp tomorrow. You’re third for the chair.” He had visions of something to be strapped in to, with his feet in a bucket of water, electrodes strapped to his head. He remains silent.
“Make-up chair,” says Amanda. “We’re all staying at this hotel, Make-up included. You’re to come to room 390 tomorrow, at eight sharp, to be made up for filming.”
“Where is that?” he asks, fearfully.
“Well, you’re in room 106, that on the first floor. We’re in room 390, that’s on the third floor. So you need to come upstairs.” He realises as she speaks that hotel rooms begin with the number of the floor they are on, and also that she thinks he is stupid.”
“I didn’t see any stairs.” He realises as soon as he has said this that he is stupid, at least for now. Reception sent him and his suitcase up in a lift, but there must have been stairs too. Fire, and everything. In such a high building they wouldn’t just have a lift.
“Amanda,” he says, “I think I will need some food and something to drink.”
“You didn’t go out to eat?”
“No, I didn’t realise…”
“Ring room service, then.” The phone goes dead.
He asks the room service voice, who sounds foreign – Greek, maybe – for a pot-of-tea-and-a-cheese-sandwich-please. It is what Auntie always used to ask for in cafés. Twenty minutes later a girl in a dirty apron, with scraped-back hair, as sweaty as Robert himself, delivers a white cup of orange tea, most of it slopped in the saucer, and something on a plate with chips. Not a sandwich.
“You one of the TV lot?” she asks, removing her chewing-gum and inspecting it.
“No,” he says, mesmerised by the chewed grey goo on her fingers. “I just got to the final of a TV competition. Six of us – did. The TV people are somewhere else in the hotel.”
“Yeah, I seen them. Two floors up. They’ve got much bigger rooms than this one. This is the arsehole of the hotel, this one. You’d think if you was a winner they’d give you a bigger room. What’s the programme going to be called?”
He wished she’d go. “A Tale of Two Halves,” he said.
“Two halves of what?”
“Of a story. We had to finish a story by a famous author – well, several authors. There was a choice.”
“Who wrote the one you finished?” she asked, putting the grey goo back in her mouth. Robert begins to feel very sick.
“Never heard of him.”
Before he stumbled across the competition on the website of CultureVulture TV, Robert had never heard of Marius Hawkinge either. Apparently he was a well-known playwright and had had several plays in theatres in the West End, including one called “Ingest/Excrete”. Robert had no idea what could be in a play for it to be called something like that. The only play he had ever seen was a panto, Jack in the Beanstalk in the village hall when he was seven. Auntie had taken him. He remembered a lot or orange make-up and eyeliner, out-of-tune singing, and a bony cow with two men inside it. It had been noisy. He had thrown what Auntie used to refer to as one of his wobblies, and had to be taken home before the end.
The gum-chewing girl had gone. Robert drinks the tea, first emptying the contents of the saucer back into the cup. He worries about germs but is too thirsty to care. It is half-cold and tastes of tannin. He doesn’t touch the thing with chips. He asked for a cheese sandwich.
Later he takes his water bottle along the corridor to the toilet, where he refills it from the cold water tap in the washbasin. The basin is dirty but he hopes the water is clean. He feels a bit better now. At least there is somebody from TV here, and at eight o’clock next morning he will be meeting them. He sits on the edge of his narrow bed. It seems even hotter in the room now. He thinks maybe he should go to the bathroom and have a shower, if is going to be on television.
It takes him a while to work out all the knobs and dials. The water comes out too cold, then too hot. At last he gets it lukewarm and climbs underneath, letting the water over his head as well as his body. Somebody thumps on the wall. He jumps. “Pissed or something?” a male voice enquires. “It’s after midnight. Why not shower at the normal time?”
He sleeps very little that night, or so it seems. And yet, although he feels he is awake he drifts in and out of nightmares. The whirr of the one remaining fan is deafening, but the heat continues to build and he cannot turn it off. He lies in the dark, sweating. Waves of panic alternate with loneliness. He longs for home and wonders how Rabbit is, without him. Poor Rabbit, confined to his hutch in this heat and tended by a neighbour.
He sends himself to Rabbit, through the air. He inhales Rabbit’s peculiar hutch-smell, automatically analysing it into faeces, fur-dust, wilted greens. It seems to him that he now is Rabbit, waiting in the darkness of their garden for Robert to come and release him. Robert wonders if Rabbit dreams of daylight and the long, wet grass of the lawn. Or maybe dreams of Robert, and in some way is here. Both here and there.
Somebody coughs and turns over in bed. Robert suddenly shivers and reaches down for the sheet, concertinaed at the bottom of the bed, to pull over his shoulders.