From the author: Lenny Graham has come back to Heartbreak Hotel (now The Deluxe) for his last intended trip. A chance conversation over tea and grief brings him new friends and surprising revelations.
“Last time I was here it was still called Heartbreak Hotel,” Lenny Graham said, checking around the hotel lobby with a skeptical eye.
“We were officially rebranded in the mid nighties, you must have really enjoyed your stay to come back again so long after,” the concierge said, thick brows popping up over her glasses. She was a tall woman, easy matching his six foot, and had a warm voice Lenny took to immediately.
“Well, when you find somewhere good you’ve got to come back to it, just took me a little while. And then they go and change it all up on you.”
“Do you have any bags to go up to your room, Mr Graham?” she asked, claret smile delightfully on brand. Heartbreak Hotel, now The Delux, kept the old school glitzy charm even with the rebrand. Her red velvet blazer was a touch more Butlins than bullions, but he was an old grouch and none of them over here knew what that was anyway.
“Yes, there’s luggage in my car,” he said with a nod.
“Would you like me to have that sent up?”
“That would be wonderful, thank you, er?”
“Meghan,” she said and he nodded again.
“Thank you, Meghan. Now, indulge an old man and tell me a secret?” He leaned in, raising one eyebrow.
“I don’t know, sir, it might be more than my job’s worth,” she said, leaning forward as well with a smirk.
“Do you still use English tea at breakfast?”
“I know the rebranding did a lot of things but you can be sure our tea standards are still rigorous,” she said, mock serious and holding back a giggle.
“Excellent. A man can die happy if he’s had a good cup of tea. Can I order one at the bar or is it breakfast only?”
“Mr Graham, I worry about the places you’re visiting if their bar won’t serve you tea.”
“Quite right, Meghan, I’m a terror, a vagabond frequenting the worst of the worst. I’ll go and order a pot then head up to my room if that’s agreeable?”
Lenny ambled through to the bar, tucking the key card into his jacket pocket and selecting a seat by the long window. He was pleased they’d kept the windows: the view of the ocean was one of the best things about the place. That and a good brew.
“A pot of tea, please,” he said to the bar tender as he passed. The redo was decent, he had to give them that: the windows let in a flood of light that was reflected over the room with large mirrors, and the furniture was all dark wood and opulence.
Settling into a table seat he pulled out a newspaper and began to read, savouring the bustling sounds of the hotel around him. He could enjoy his time here, and take his leave when it suited him. He could soak it in and go off with good memories.
“Mind if I join you?” a voice asked and he tipped his paper down to see a young lady across from him. She was pale as milk with purple hair and a highly shined wheelchair, the metal glinting in the sunlight. She was wearing all black, blouse and jeans from what he could see, and there was something in her nervous glance he felt in his chest.
“Of course,” Lenny said with a smile.
“Thanks. You English?”
“Yes, good ear. Are you alright?”
“If I wait in a bar at other places people either hit on me or try to wheel me out. I don’t want to cause a scene.”
“That’s very rude of them. I’ve ordered tea, would you like them to bring you a cup?”
“No, thank you, I’m actually waiting for someone.”
“My partner. She’s due to meet me here, she’s just a bit behind. Tied up with something.”
“Such is the way when you’re young, always busy with things to do,” Lenny said, wrinkling his nose at her. “I’m Lenny.” He held a hand out and she shook it, grip firm as a farmer.
“Adriene,” she said, flashing a quick smile. “Are you waiting for someone as well?”
“No, not this time. Just me.”
“She’s taking me for swimming lessons. My partner,” Adriene said, wringing her hands a little.
“That sounds fun. My wife taught me to swim, much longer ago than I care to admit.”
“Was it good?”
“I was awful at it. Being tall you forget how much of you there is, until the legs are knocked out of you by a current and then there’s too much. She was excellent though, a natural, and she got me someway decent.”
“What’s her name?”
“Cynthia. We came here for our honeymoon, again an awful long while back, and we planned to come back. They’ve done the place up all fancy since then, different to how it was, but it still feels good. Does an old man’s bones to see things new.”
“She went off to the big band in the sky, yes,” he said with a nod, pulling a smile up. “It was music that we met through, touring. She could play the piano like an angel and I was lucky enough to be the one her eye caught on. We toured with a big star and took two weeks out to come here after we married. Heartbreak Hotel, the perfect place.”
“I’m sorry,” Adriene said, gulping, “My mom died, not too long ago, and it was awful. I hated it, for the longest time.” She started to cry a little, face flushing red, and shook her head. “I’m sorry. It was so difficult, she was ill and then she was dead and now I keep crying.”
“It’s ok, chicken, no need to apologise. It is was it is. Cynthia’s was sudden but it happened. We’re never ready. Tell me about your lady, teachin’ you to swim. What’s she called?”
Adriene brightened at that, giving a sniff, “Her name’s Rhian. She’s brilliant, she’s patient with me and she’s teaching me to hold my breath longer. How to use my legs in the water so they don’t hurt. It’s wonderful.”
“Sounds like something precious, those things are wonderful. Where’d you meet?”
“I kinda fell into the ocean. Off a pier. And I wasn’t great at getting out, and she saved me then said she’d have to teach me so I could do it myself next time.”
“A teacher and a hero, you’ve got yourself a good one there.”
“I think so too. Some people get funny, because we’re not the same race, but I think you get that everywhere.”
“We didn’t get that back home too much, but there was some here. It’s them that’s wrong though, not you. Cynthia said that every time we got yelled at, or she got called something for being with the wrong man. White girl on the piano was odd enough anyway, add a black husband and well.” He puffed air, shaking his head. “Ignorant people say ignorant shit, and it ain’t your job to shovel it.”
“You’ll have to say that to Rhian, she’d love it in your accent.” Adriene laughed, smiling at him properly this time. “I have t’ powder my nose, if you see her coming can you call her over?”
“Of course,” Lenny replied, pleased to see his tea arriving as she wheeled off. He poured himself a cup, adding sugar and just a splash of milk, and thought of Cynthia. The heart attack had meant to be his, he was the one with a dodgy ticker, but it swung up out of nowhere and she went out like a light. It had been a dark year after that, none of her sunshine to warm his days. Dark enough for a man look for his own snuffer.
He was pulled from his thoughts by a woman walking into the bar and scouting the place like a professional, body a tight line of focus. She was tall, rock solid, and had skin closer to umber than his russet brown.
“Rhian?” he called and her view switched to meet his, one brow quirking up. She moved towards him, her cobalt dress rippling out like water around her as she walked. Her hair was closely interwoven to her skull, slinking braids running down behind her shoulders.
“Who are you?” she asked in a smooth accent he would love to hear sing.
“I’m Lenny. Adriene is just in the loo, said she would be right back.”
“You know Adriene?”
“She wanted company while she was waiting and we chatted. That’s the extent of it. Well, she also told me you’re teaching her to swim. My wife did that too, with me.”
“How did that work out?”
“Pretty good by the end of it, and she never tried to drown me so I can’t have been that bad a student.” She huffed a laugh, something like a smile playing over her face. Her eyes were volumes, black even the light of the windows. “She said you saved her too, when she fell off a pier.”
“You could say that, yes,” Rhian said, glancing towards the bathroom. “She was… careless. Or maybe lucky. She missed her mother too much and thought it would help. I just happened to be there and I knew I didn’t want her to die. Blind luck.” She smiled, shook her head a little before looking back to him. “I can’t be there all the time, and luck runs out, so she needs to know how to do it too.”
“Sensible lass. We’ve got to look after what’s precious.” He nodded, sniffing a little and taking a sip of tea.
“We have. And she’s very understanding that I can’t stay.”
“Work take you off?”
“Not exactly,” Rhian said, smiling, and Lenny noticed there was too many teeth in her mouth. “I can’t be on land too long, no more than a day or so. We make it work.” She tilted her head, showing a thin line running from behind her ear and under her jaw. It gave a soft lift and came down again, lost in the shadow as she moved.
“’I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky’,” Lenny said, putting his teacup down. “When she mentioned interracial issues I thought it was racism.”
“There’s that too.”
“I bet, I bet. Well, as I said to her: ignorant people say ignorant shit, and it ain’t your job to shovel it.”
Rhian snorted, covering her hand with her mouth for a moment as her depthless eyes flicked over him. “A good philosophy.”
“Hey, baby,” came Adriene’s voice and Rhian stepped aside to let her rejoin them. “You’ve met Lenny?”
“He spotted me looking for you,” Rhian said, leaning in low to give Adriene a hug and peck a kiss to her cheeks. “Said he was accosted by a slip of a thing with a habit of flinging themselves into the ocean.”
“I think I actually said I’d heard only good things about you from a very nice young woman,” Lenny said, shaking his head.
“We should go, get you in the water before the sun’s down,” Rhian said, slipping her fingers through Adriene’s hair.
“Yes! Thank you for keeping me company, Lenny, I hope you enjoy your stay. And your tea,” Adriene said, nodding to the pot.
“Have a good time, lovely to meet you both. Let me know if you need a trumpet player,” Lenny said, giving them a wave and a nod to Rhian when she glanced back. He sat with his tea for a beat, then slipped his wallet out and smiled at the photo of Cynthia. He traced her jaw, checking for any thin little lines he may have missed before.
No, Cynthia was a star in the water but not a mermaid. There were mermaids though, and that was something totally new. Something to shine a little light in a dark year. Maybe he could stick around a little to find some more new things.