ICEHOTEL, page 1
by Hanna Allen
Text copyright © 2012 Hanna R Allen
(UK English Edition 2012)
All Rights Reserved
To Shelagh Graham, whom I wish I had known better.
A debt of gratitude to Alison Aiton, Jonathan Cameron, Liz Cole-Hamilton, Dorothy Graham, Jane Greaves, Christiane Helling, Gaitee Hussain, Moira Jardine, Caroline McAdam, Anne McCreanor, Andrew Menzies, Julia Prescott, Key Proudlock, Val Smith, Liz Work, and Annette Zimmermann for reading (and re-reading) the manuscript, and suggesting ways in which the novel could be improved. Especially to both Michael Pollak and Krystyna Szawelski, for their faith in this work and for their unflagging enthusiasm. Finally to Andrea Bremner and Nick Cole-Hamilton for their sound advice in helping get this book to market.
Table of Contents
‘It’s happened again, hasn’t it, Maggie?’ Dr Langley watched me, her face a mask. ‘Tell me about it.’
‘I’ve told you before. It’s always the same.’
‘Tell me again.’
Again? Why did she want to hear what she’d heard so many times before? But she was the doctor.
‘It’s night,’ I began. ‘I’m in a dark room, with windows from floor to ceiling. The windows have shutters.’
‘Are they open?’
I made a point of not answering directly whenever she interrupted. ‘The moonlight makes patterns of light on the floor. But I don’t linger there because I’ve seen the door in the far wall. I skirt the furniture, which is covered in dust sheets. As I reach the door, something makes me look back. The furniture’s gliding across the floor, the pieces zig-zagging past each other. I hurry into the next room, and the rooms after that. Then I’m there.’ My heart began to pound as the memory returned. ‘The bathroom’s large, with no windows. It’s flooded with a harsh light.’
‘Where’s the light coming from if there are no windows?’
She hadn’t asked this question before. ‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘Is it important?’
‘Everything you say is important.’ She smiled. ‘Please go on.’
‘The bathroom’s tiled in white – the walls, the ceiling, the floor. The bath’s in the middle of the room, sunk into the ground like a swimming pool. The water’s level with the floor, and the surface is still.’
I hesitated, as I always did at this point, because I felt the fear start to grow. It germinated slowly, a tiny living thing, fattening in my gut, twisting, sprouting tentacles, filling my spaces. ‘I look into the bath, but it’s too murky to see. Yet I know something lies hidden under the water. I stretch a hand towards the taps, and pull at the chain. But I can’t shift it. It’s lying along the bottom and something heavy is weighing it down. I grip it with both hands and tug sharply. The thing at the bottom stirs, as though it’s wakening. Then I know I’ll have to do what I’ve dreaded since entering the house. I plunge my hands into the water and slide them down the chain. They’re so numb I can barely feel them. Icy water spills over the edge and soaks into my feet.’ I squeezed my eyes shut in an effort to blot out the image. ‘I pull hard, straining against the weight, and the thing shifts and starts to rise. The water thickens, changing colour from brown to dark red.’ My eyes flew open, and I started to gag.
‘Breathe deeply, Maggie. You’re nearly there.’
‘I try to loosen my grip, but I can’t. I hear something behind me. I turn round. The room’s empty. The door’s disappeared, it’s tiled over, become part of the wall. I pull and pull, and the thing in the bath reaches the top, and breaks the surface.’ The last words came out in a rush.
‘And you wake up.’
I nodded, seized by the fear. Its fleshy tentacles, now fully grown, were coiled around my throat, constricting my breathing, creeping into my nostrils. I opened my mouth wide, panting, and struggled for control until the tentacles loosened and slipped from my throat.
‘How does waking feel?’ Dr Langley said gently.
I ran a hand over my face. ‘I’m in a sweat and out of breath. I think I must cry out. The woman in the flat above gave me a strange look when I passed her on the stairs.’
Dr Langley placed her palms together as though in prayer. For a second, I imagined her mumbling in Latin. ‘What do you think is in the bath, Maggie?’ she said.
Another question she hadn’t asked. I wondered whether she was trying to trick me but I dismissed the thought; she was my doctor. ‘I’ve no idea,’ I said. ‘But there was one thing that was different. The smell.’
‘It was dank, like a pond. Or a river.’
And laced with something impossible to describe, something I’d smelt in the Chapel at the Icehotel. Oh God, that Chapel. My stomach lurched. I swallowed hard, trying to stop the retching.
Dr Langley rose quickly and walked to the sideboard, her shoes squeaking on the polished parquet. She poured noisily from a crystal decanter. I slumped back, listening to the tone change as the glass filled with water.
The surgery was like none I’d seen. And I’d seen a few. The sideboard was antique; I’d asked about it at our first session, more to keep the conversation going than from genuine interest. Above it, a gilt-framed mirror hung suspended from the picture rail. There was a time when I’d have leant forward to admire my reflection. Not any more.
‘Drink this,’ she said, leaning over to hand me the glass.
I wrapped myself in the powdery scent of her perfume, and listened to the room’s sounds. They seemed strangely magnified: the ticking of the grandfather clock, the distant traffic through the partly-shuttered windows. I drained the glass, holding onto these sounds as though sanity depended on it.
She returned to the desk.
‘Can I smoke in here?’ I said. ‘I’m probably not allowed to, but, as it’s your office . . .’
The expression in her eyes changed. So, after all these sessions, I could still surprise her. The thought gave me a cat-got-the-cream sense of satisfaction.
‘I didn’t know you smoked, Maggie.’
‘I started yesterday,’ I lied.
She arched an eyebrow but I pretended not to see it. I pawed in my bag and found the Marlboro Lights I’d taken from Liz’s kitchen table. But I had no matches. I glanced up, smiling awkwardly. Without a word, Dr Langley reached into a drawer and produced a silver lighter. She nudged the ashtray in my direction. I lit a cigarette and sucked gratefully, wondering whether she, too, was a smoker. Studying her as I exhaled, I concluded she wasn’t. The lighter would be for her patients, all as pathetic as I was, craving nicotine to get through the day and not remembering essentials like matches.
Yet I wanted to see her reaction. I thrust out the pack. ‘Would you like one?’
‘I don’t smoke.’
She smiled then, a wide smile that showed her perfect teeth. A Julia
From somewhere within the building a door slammed, shredding my nerves. I lit another cigarette, and was pocketing the lighter when I remembered myself. I balanced it on the edge of the desk, avoiding Dr Langley’s eyes.
‘Why am I having this dream?’ I said.
She studied her finely-manicured hands. The nails were varnished in the palest rose. I thought of my own, ragged, bitten to the quick, and slid my hands under my knees.
‘You need to bear in mind, Maggie, that there’s rarely a simple explanation for a dream.’ She was in teacher-mode now. ‘Dreams consist of elements which have to be disentangled. That’s not always easy. In yours, some associations are clear. The smell of river water, for example.’ She leant forward, her eyes steady. ‘But the thing you can’t see, the thing that’s under the water – that holds the key. It’s something you want to discover, which is why you can’t release the chain and the door disappears, trapping you in the bathroom and forcing you to make the discovery. But it’s also something you dread discovering, so your brain wakes you before the thing reaches the surface.’
‘And the water turning to blood?’
‘That’s not so surprising, given what happened at the Icehotel. But the white tiles.’ She made an arch with her fingers. ‘Your subconscious is drawing your attention to them. My suspicion is you’ve seen them somewhere. Can you remember?’
‘I can’t remember what day it is, let alone where I’ve seen white tiles,’ I said, hoping she wouldn’t realise I was lying.
‘Then that’s something we’ll keep working on.’
‘And when I find out what’s under the water, I’ll stop having the dream?’
‘It’s equally likely you’ll stop having it before you find out.’
I rested my head against the back of the chair and stared at the ceiling. I hadn’t always had dreams. My childhood and early teens had passed without them. Dreams had appeared at the onset of adulthood and, with it, responsibility. But this dream, that had reduced me to a fraction of my former self, was recent, brought on by the terrible events earlier in the year. Weeks would pass without it, then, for no apparent reason, three would come consecutively, like buses. I wondered whether the others who’d been at the Icehotel had dreams. Liz might, although I doubted Mike would. But not Harry. Not now.
Dr Langley’s voice broke into my thoughts. ‘You’re making progress, Maggie.’ She was writing, adding today’s observations to her case notes. ‘Don’t you feel it?’
I ran a hand over my face. ‘I feel I’m living someone else’s life.’
She replaced the cap on her fountain pen, then blotted and closed the file. She always did it in that order. I was fascinated both by this little ritual, and by the medical profession’s apparent disregard for the ballpoint.
‘We went a little further today,’ she said. ‘I see evidence of improvement each time we meet.’
‘The men in white coats aren’t coming for me, then?’
‘When you can recall your experiences without reliving them, you’ll be through the worst.’ She searched my face. ‘But there’s something you’re holding back. Something you’re not telling me.’
I kept my expression blank. It was a look I’d perfected in recent weeks.
‘I’m not saying you’re doing it deliberately.’ She hesitated. ‘But you’ve still to tell me what happened at the Icehotel.’
What did she want to know? It had been in all the newspapers.
‘You’re back at work in the New Year.’ She had the file open again and was scanning the pages. ‘A pharmaceutical company, isn’t it?’
She played these little games. She knew the name, but wanted to see if I remembered it. She knew everything about my life: my childhood, my time at university, my first job in Newcastle. And the move to Edinburgh.
‘It’s Bayne Pharmaceuticals, Dr Langley,’ I said, my voice level. ‘They’ve given me six months’ leave of absence. My boss has been brilliant about everything.’
‘And how are you sleeping? On the nights you don’t have the dream,’ she added.
‘Having a drink before bed helps.’
I wondered if she’d guessed I needed to drink myself into oblivion. Even then, I rarely slept through. The worst hour was three in the morning: I’d wake and, unable to sleep, would chain-smoke in bed. But she knew I drank before our sessions. She couldn’t fail to notice the odour on my breath. I rarely went to the surgery without at least two drinks inside me. The first gave my brain cells a wake-up call, but a second was needed to make them fully functioning.
She was watching me. ‘You will get over this, Maggie. But you’ve got to give yourself a chance.’
I looked into her eyes, wondering why, after all these months, she still believed it. Probably because she didn’t know the whole story. Nor did I, come to that. Yet until I did, there’d be no recovery and the dream would overwhelm me. All it needed was a single sharp tug at the thread of my fraying sanity, and it would unravel completely.
‘It isn’t just about what happened there, Maggie, although those events were terrible enough. Something else is behind this dream.’ She paused. ‘You’ve come to the same conclusion.’
After a silence, I said, ‘The police got it wrong. They got it all wrong. I need to know what really happened.’
‘And what’s stopping you?’
‘I might discover something that . . .’ I tailed off, unable to find the words.
‘Something you want to discover, yet something you dread discovering?’ she said softly. ‘The thing in the bath.’
‘If I discover it, will it release me from this . . .’ – I gave my head a small shake – ‘from this hell?’
‘Nothing else will. And I think you know that. But we can make the journey together.’ Her eyes held mine. ‘Will you tell me what happened?’
I nodded slowly.
‘Start at the beginning, then. Start with how you came to be at the Icehotel.’
So, as the wind seized the windows and rattled them, wailing to be let in, I told Dr Langley everything.
It was Harry who’d raised the idea.
We were in Liz’s back garden. Summer was slipping away, making a last desperate attempt to survive with a spell of balmy weather. Although the time for shorts and t-shirts had passed, there was enough heat in the pale September sun to warm our upturned faces.
I was watching Liz’s children, Annie and Lucy. They were running around the plum tree, playing a chasing game I recognised from childhood, their shrieking laughter eclipsing the droning of the wasps drunk on the rotting plums. The twins had inherited their mother’s looks – creamy skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes – but their hair wasn’t straight like hers, hanging in short heavy ringlets which bounced as they moved. The curls were held back with hair slides and, as Annie and Lucy were identical twins, the colour of the slides was the only way to tell them apart.
Liz was the sister I’d never had, my closest friend with whom I’d passed a blissful childhood and teens. After her divorce, she moved from London back to Edinburgh to start a new life with her children. I’d run into her two years before, and we took up our friendship as though we’d never put it down. It was she who’d introduced me to Harry Auchinleck, ‘a gay gentleman in his fifties’, and a Professor at Edinburgh University. An accredited Cordon Bleu cook, he shared Liz’s love
Liz was picking over the last of the strawberries, examining each one before popping it into her mouth. As she chewed, the velvety mole on her cheek jiggled up and down. I’d once tried to give myself a beauty spot with an eyebrow pencil, but had smudged it without realising, and spent the entire evening at a party looking as though I had a tadpole on my face.
Harry had just mooted the idea of the holiday. He was sitting under the sunshade, wearing his battered panama hat. He’d exchanged his spectacles for an ancient pair of sunglasses, held together with sticky tape. ‘So we’re agreed, then,’ he said, pushing them further up his nose. ‘And you’re sure next spring will work for you, Liz?’
‘Absolutely,’ she said, running a hand over her ponytail. ‘I can leave the girls with their grandparents. They’re awfully fond of the children. But let me get the diary so I can check the dates.’
As she passed me, moving with that idle grace that comes naturally to some women, I caught a trace of her perfume, Paris, by Yves Saint Laurent.
‘It was too easy, Harry,’ I said. ‘I was certain that prising Liz from her children would be much more difficult.’ I leant back, drenching myself in the heady scent of jasmine.
‘My dear, gift horses and mouths spring to mind. If only persuasion were as easy with my head of department.’
I smiled, my eyes still closed. ‘I thought those travel brochures you brought might be tempting fate.’
‘The important thing is that she’s agreed to take a holiday. She’s run ragged half the time, and it’s healthy to loosen the umbilical cord a bit.’ He lowered his voice unnecessarily. ‘I’m delighted you’re able to come, Maggie. It would have been improper for me to take her away, even though I’m a crusty professor, old enough to be her father, and everyone knows I bat for the other side.’
‘Harry, no-one bothers about that sort of thing these days.’