I almost never stay at hotels in England. Obviously I do on the rare occasions I holiday abroad but hotels here are expensive and I have found them somehow off-putting - not exactly intimidating but they create a kind of tension in me. I feel your behaviour is so open to scrutiny, by the staff, by the other guests – and there are routines and systems you don’t know about. It’s easy enough to make a fool of yourself.
In any case I had little choice on that night. The day had gone according to plan and I thought quite successfully; my visits to the branches are made in a supervisory capacity but I had been well received and found nothing much to fault.
Later I’d had a pleasant enough light meal at a cafe near the station but then found the train I’d been planning to catch had been mysteriously cancelled. I asked about later connections but they would have involved travelling most of the night. I phoned the three hotels in town, but all were fully booked because of some festival or other. I was afraid I would have to reconcile myself to a very uncomfortable night travelling but then I happened to see a rather tattered poster advertising a hotel a few miles out of the city, the Albany. It did have the advantage of being quite reasonably priced and the receptionist told me over the phone that there was a convenient local bus service. I only had my work case with me but I would have to make do – the hotel would probably have complimentary toiletries I imagined. It would certainly be quite late by the time I got there.
Once installed in my room I remember looking around me with some satisfaction. It was surprisingly large and well furnished in an old-fashioned style, with high ceilings and large French windows. It even had a balcony, though it was too dark to see what it overlooked. I had hopes I might see a view of the moors in the morning; they couldn’t be far away, I was sure. The room’s only drawback was that it was a little chilly.
I had found the process of registering a little unsettling. The foyer seemed enormous, cavernous almost, and though the receptionist, or night manager I think was his title, wasn’t in any way rude, quite the reverse in fact, I felt he was suspicious of me. He was in any case a strange-looking individual, extremely tall and thin with very long arms and an aquiline face. He was well-spoken, having in fact an almost patrician manner, graciously polite with, I couldn’t help feeling, a touch of condescension. He was rather elegantly but casually dressed for a hotel employee too, in an expensive looking velvet jacket and a shirt, probably silk, open at the neck. He made no comment on my lack of luggage, though he certainly took it in with a brief, shrewd glance. I explained my predicament and he sounded sympathetic enough but again there was that hint of superiority or possibly just remoteness.
However, now preparing for sleep, I put the experience out of my mind. The bed was comfortable and the hotel was very quiet. I hadn’t met anyone at all in fact, perhaps unsurprising since it was so late. My room was at the end of the corridor so there was only one next to me and that appeared to be empty judging by the lack of movement and noise. I looked forward to a good night’s sleep and a comfortable journey home on the fast train in the morning. I hadn’t booked breakfast at the Albany, preferring to eat on the train; I don’t much enjoy breakfasting in hotels. I set my phone alarm for my usual seven o’clock call, stretched myself out under the covers feeling reasonably relaxed and pretty soon was fast asleep.
I don’t know what time it was when I first heard the noise but I felt I hadn’t been asleep for long. What I heard was heavy breathing, panting really; there was a little rasping sound on the intake occasionally, as if someone was struggling for breath after exhausting effort. I lay there listening for some time, trying to make out what I was hearing. I assumed whoever it was must have entered their room after I had fallen asleep. Then I just made out another noise, a faint cry, very high and quick, rather like a bird but somehow more sentient, clearly not from the heavy breather; it was repeated several times at irregular intervals. At length I realised that I was being silly. Although it sounded to my ears rather strange, even desperate, what I was listening to was some kind of sexual activity and I certainly ought to stop straining my ears and trying to picture what was going on. I should turn over and go to sleep, which I endeavoured to do. Luckily I was tired enough and soon drifted off, despite the continuing disturbance.
It was much later when I woke again after a dream of wind and shouting. The noises now were much louder and even stranger; I couldn’t recognise them as anything I knew. There was a repeated whooshing sound, as of a rush of air driven by some powerful force. In between each of these there was a rising and falling moan, almost a shriek, almost but not quite human, which could have been either ecstasy or agony, an extreme of pain or pleasure. Then there was a horrible sound, a sort of wet thwack and scrunch which made me think of an arrow finding flesh, followed by a gasp. After a silence of several seconds the whooshing sounds started again, followed by renewed moaning, as ambiguous as before.
I lay in bed for a while, horrified. The noises were so alarming and so inexplicable that I wondered if I was hallucinating but there was a slight trembling of my balcony windows at the climax of each rush of air next door, which convinced me it was real. In the end my desperation to find a rational explanation overcame my fear and I crept out of bed, pulled on my trousers and tiptoed over to the wall. I put my ear to it and listened but the sounds did not resolve themselves into anything familiar. They were louder of course but the only addition was a faint rustling, possibly, I thought, as if something was fluttering in the repeated rush of air, since it seemed to be most noticeable then. My mind was crowded with ghastly visions of the scene but none of them seemed plausible. I pulled on my coat and opened the windows. The balcony was quite small and narrow and there was a fairly wide gap to the next one but I could see its windows quite clearly. The heavy curtains were drawn but there was a strong light behind them and as I watched I saw the light dim and then brighten again as if a large shadow had moved across it. This was again and again repeated as if something huge was moving regularly up and down or back and forth across the light. That was all I could see. The noises continued, somewhat muffled by the curtains and the buffeting of the wind about my ears. It was freezing cold out there.
I went back inside and sat on the bed. I felt I was in danger of having some kind of nervous collapse if I continued passively to listen to those terrible and incomprehensible sounds, which seemed now even louder. When that sickening penetrative thwack of impact came again I decided I had to take action and picked up the hotel phone. I didn’t know what to dial but luckily lifting the receiver meant the phone was answered, very promptly, by the night manager asking how he could be of service. I then found myself in some difficulty. What was I to say that sounded reasonable or believable? In the end I think I managed only “There is a lot of noise coming from the next room, some kind of disturbance. I can’t sleep.”
He was of course immediately apologetic and then went on “Excuse me for a moment while I check the guest list, Mr Patrick. You are of course in 57, at the end of the corridor, so next door to you there is only number 55. “ There was a pause. “Ah, let me check that again! How strange! According to the register that room is unoccupied. There must be some mistake.” I was in no state to deal with yet more bizarre events. “I am being driven mad by the noises they are making. It certainly isn’t empty.” “I’m terribly sorry, sir. Is the disturbance continuing at the moment?” I was about to answer emphatically in the affirmative when I realised there was now no sound at all coming from the next room. I stopped and listened, holding the phone as far away from me as possible. There was total silence until I heard the tiny voice from the phone repeating my name, “Mr. Patrick? Mr Patrick?” I gathered the phone to me and fought to keep my voice steady.
“They seem to have stopped for now. I think they must have heard me making this call,” I said.
“Is it at all possible, sir, that the disturbance is coming from further down the corridor or from the other side, opposite your room?”
“Certainly not. I could see a light on and movement from my balcony. The noise was definitely coming from there.”
“I might normally suggest that you might like to wait and see if all remains calm now but since the room is empty according to our register I think I must come up and investigate.”
“Thank you. The whole incident has upset me.”
“Quite understandable, sir. Will it be convenient if I knock at your door in a few minutes?”
“Yes, thank you. That’ll be fine.”
A few minutes later I heard the lift open at the other end of the corridor and footsteps approach. They stopped and there was a gentle knock at the next door. There was no reply and the knock was repeated more firmly. After a brief pause I heard a key turning and the door open, followed by an exclamation of surprise and someone entering and walking about in the room, opening and closing things. After a while the steps came back to the door, there was a click, the relocking of that door and then a gentle knock at mine. I opened it.
The night manager looked at me warily. “I have examined the room, sir. It is empty and there is no sign it has been occupied tonight.”
“Impossible. I heard and saw them. The noises were terrible. I’m sure you found something – you sounded surprised when you opened the door!”
“Yes, sir, strangely the French windows were wide open and the lights were on - an unusually careless chamber maid I suppose. There’s quite a wind blowing and the room was very cold. Is it possible that that was what you heard and saw, the wind disturbing things in the room, the curtains and bed hangings perhaps?”
I could tell from the way the man was speaking that he was wondering about my state of mind and whether he was dealing with a hysteric or someone suffering from some mental illness. I knew I had to appear calm and sensible. “Could I see the room for myself?” I asked. “Of course, sir. Follow me.”
It was as he said. Nothing appeared disturbed; the bed was perfectly made up and everything was in pristine order. The room was still icy cold even though he had closed the windows. Of course I was convinced that whoever or whatever had been in the room had somehow silently left through the windows or had concealed themselves but I hesitated to say such a thing to the night manager. I had no wish to invite anyone to question my state of mind, especially considering my recent troubles. “I don’t understand,” I said. “But whatever was causing the noises they appear to have stopped. I suppose I must try to get back to sleep.” “I do apologise, Mr. Patrick, on behalf of the hotel. I think the open windows and the wind must somehow have been responsible for the disturbance you heard. It is 3.30 a.m., a bad time to be woken up. I can imagine the whole thing created a nightmarish experience for you.”
I decided to let the suggestion that I was prone to night terrors pass. The night manager turned off the lights and locked the door. He begged me not to hesitate to call him if I was disturbed again for any reason; we said good night to each other and I returned to my room.
I lay for some time under the covers in an anxious state. I must admit that I began to wonder if I had dreamed or imagined some of the experience. It was possible that the faint fluttering sound through the wall and the shadowing of the light I saw from the balcony had been caused by the wind but it certainly couldn’t have made those awful noises; I had the overwhelming impression that some dreadful act was being perpetrated by one person or creature on another. Possibly, I tried to tell myself, my own recent close encounter with severe physical injury had caused me to have a sort of waking nightmare. In any case all was now quiet and knowing the night manager was available by the lifting of the receiver was reassuring. I told myself that whatever the explanation was it was now all over and in the end I did manage to coax myself back to sleep.
I was awoken by that same awful sound of something sharp striking and penetrating flesh with dreadful force, a sound that spoke of deliberate wounding. The same series of noises, with the same timing, the same pauses, were occurring as before. I lay there, paralysed with horror, for several repetitions of the pattern, the rush of air as if driven by a giant bellows or wing, the undulating almost human moaning, the savage impact, the gasp, the brief silence. Recovering my wits a little I reached for the phone on the bedside table, but then I hesitated. What if they and the whole experience disappeared without trace again? That seemed only too likely. How would my story be received then? Did I really want to be taken for someone in the grip of a mental illness? The night manager might even call a doctor or the emergency services. I got out of bed again and pulled on some clothes and my coat. Although very frightened I was also desperate to find some kind of explanation, to understand. I again went out onto the balcony. The wind had dropped a little. It was still dark but it must have been some time between five and six in the morning and there was perhaps the faintest lightening of the sky in the East. There were no stars. When I looked across at the windows I could again see that strong light, brighter than I remembered from my visit to the room, and the same slow, rhythmic darkening of it, which I then realised coincided with that onrushing whoosh of air. I stayed fascinated and appalled, unable to make any sense of it, until the cold drove me back in.
What was I to do? I told myself that was I was in no danger, except perhaps of actually going mad. Should I call the night manager? I was very reluctant to do so. Night was nearly over and the dawn was on its way; somehow I didn’t believe that the nightmare could continue after that. I would leave as soon as it was properly light and make for a transport cafe I knew that opened early. For perhaps twenty minutes that seemed more like several hours I sat and listened to that sickening sequence of sounds, the unnerving, accelerating rush of air, the anguished or ecstatic moans rising at times to a wail, then the frightful, damaging smack of impact, the shrill gasp and the short silence before it all began again. Then there was a change after the silence; the rush of air was much more rapidly repeated, there was a confused scrabbling sound and I heard the French windows crashing open.
I rushed to the balcony but I had of course shut my windows and by the time I got them open I was too late. It was still dark and now somewhat misty but I thought I could make out, about to disappear into the murk, a dark shape with large wings which seemed to be carrying a smaller shape beneath it, also I thought with wings, though I may have been mistaken. It was hard to estimate size and distance but the carrier shape looked far larger than any bird. Then they were gone.
I felt, as you can imagine, a powerful mixture of relief and deep shock. I had witnessed something utterly extraordinary, something I wished I had never seen or heard, something I could not imagine sharing with anyone. I decided I would leave as soon as it was fully light, which would not be long.
When, somewhat recovered, dressed and more or less prepared for the day, I finally left my room, I was surprised to see that the door to fifty-five was open and the room was being cleaned by a chamber-maid. The French windows were also wide open and she was picking up some stuff littering the floor and putting it into a bin she was carrying. I couldn’t very well stop and examine her or what she was gathering up but from my brief glance it looked like mounds of feathers of various sizes, both dark and light.
At reception I found no sign of the night manager, only a very young man, scarcely more than a boy, who managed to check me out of the hotel virtually without speaking. I did ask if he could tell me who had been staying in room fifty-five next to mine, but I only got the standard reply that they were not allowed to give out such information.
I didn’t argue but left at once in search of breakfast, comfort and normality.
I have not been back to the area since. Someone else now inspects that local branch.