I’m delighted to announce that the fifth in the series of “Hotel Stories”, Ask for Scarlett, is now available. If you have a Kindle, or a Kindle app on your iPad, laptop or other digital device, you can download it instantly with six other stories in Hotel Stories: the Complete Collection.
I wrote about Ask for Scarlett in a previous post, including the fact that it lets us, for the first time, see parts of the story from the point of view of Ms N – the most brilliant, unpredictable and occasionally homicidal hotel manager in the world. It may also, perhaps, introduce a couple of comparatively sympathetic male characters.
Enjoy. A sample of the story is below.
Ask for Scarlett (Excerpt)
A short story by Robert Pimm
I arrive exhausted. In the shady arbour that is the lobby of the Caravanserai, I slip off my hiking boots, exhale and put my feet up. A breeze caresses my hair. An emerald gecko darts up the wall then stops, a living sculpture on the hand-hewn mountain stone.
For a long moment he stays frozen, as if considering his options. Only his eyes betray his animation.
Could the hotel have arranged a welcome gecko?
At the Caravanserai Ultra Platinum, they tell you everything is possible.
But to me, that gecko looks too cool to be corporate.
‘Would madam like to try the complimentary, locally-sourced, hand-woven, virgin-combed, glacier-cured mohair moccasins? We have a choice of natural and hypoallergenic. Or some customers prefer to go barefoot: our carpets have the deepest shag pile on the market.’ The woman kneeling at my feet, who is wearing a name-badge which describes her as Scarlett, guest services manager, allows her gaze briefly to meet mine and moistens her bee-stung lips. ‘You can leave your feet au naturel.’
I blink. She has veered off-script. I have already marked her as exceptional: attentive, clever and not merely attractive but beautiful. Beautiful, smart women are desirable in the public areas of hotels. The question is how they use those attributes. I cock my head and smile.
‘Au naturel?’ Is that an option?
‘At the Caravanserai UP, everything is an option. You simply have to ask for Scarlett.’ She moves her hand to her bosom and tilts her name-badge in such a way as to highlight both her name and the spectacular curve where her breast meets her slender waist under the hotel day uniform – the latter tailored and hand-stitched, I am beginning to suspect, by indigenous craftswomen from sustainable, recyclable, planet-pampering, all-natural fabrics.
Showing off your body is not part of our hotel chain’s standards. No matter how spectacular that body may be.
The Caravanserai UP boasts that it is the coolest and most ecological as well as the most luxurious hotel on earth. It is also managed by a dear friend of mine. Yet in one hundred and eighty seconds, to my horror, I have observed two irregularities.
‘Scarlett, is it possible for me to wash my feet before I go to my room?’
‘Yes, madam. I will be pleased to offer you this service.’ Scarlett is back on script. She pours water from a tall pitcher into a heavy enamelled bowl. On the wall, a hand-written message on a chalk-board informs me that the water is neither chilled nor warmed, but precisely room-temperature.
This strikes me as an excellent touch: low-tech; ecological; ironic; and, best of all, dirt-cheap.
Scarlett washes my feet with a touch both gentle and professional. I begin to relax.
Perhaps I have misjudged her.
Then, while her left hand is cradling my right foot, she brings her right hand round to my heel and slides her fingers a few inches up the soft flesh of my calf. In the same instant, she sighs audibly through those moistened, prominent lips and shakes her head as though lost in a moment of pleasure.
No, no and no.
‘Thank you, Scarlett.’ I jerk my leg away and make to stand, conscious that my feet are still wet.
‘Please, madam, remain seated.’ She has taken a heavy, unbleached, long-cotton Egyptian towel from the pile and makes to dry me, professional once more.
To confirm my suspicions, I tip her immensely. But her response is from the good hotelier’s handbook: a humble shake of the head, as if I have been inexplicably generous. The temptress of a few moments earlier has vanished. In her place I see a humble, hard-working hotel employee.
I am puzzled. In my experience, three strikes mean you are out. Could I be mistaken?
The Caravanserai UP boasts of its bio-sustainability and ethno-chic. I am beginning to feel it may need a little more emphasis on natural selection and survival of the fittest.
‘When can I see the general manager?’ I ask.
‘In thirty minutes, madam.’ Scarlett’s gaze is calm.
‘Could you show me around the hotel before then?’
‘It would be my pleasure.’ She places the soiled towel into a rustic hand-woven wickerwork basket and leads me down a tunnel into the mountain.
‘There is no air-conditioning in the corridors of the Caravanserai UP hotel,’ she says. ‘At this altitude, the nights are freezing and the days are hot. But the stone of the mountain dome maintains a constant temperature that happens to be perfect for human beings. As a back-up, guest rooms and common areas are equipped with eco-radiant hydronic climatic amelioration systems. This is the Alexandria Library.’
She steps through an archway into a zone of high-backed leather armchairs, oak shelving and countless hard-backed books. The seats and bookshelves are bathed in low-wattage lighting so empathetic I have to fight the urge immediately to select a book and settle down to read. The carpet-pile beneath my feet is, as promised, soft, clean and so deep I can barely see my feet. ‘How is it – ?’ I begin.
Scarlett raises a finger to those lips and beckons me back into the corridor.
‘The Library has a strictly enforced code of silence,’ she whispers. ‘But there is no need to talk. You may use our E-UP app on your own mobile device, or on our complimentary tablets, to order books, drinks, snacks, noise-cancelling headphones or any other service you desire. If you prefer to reduce energy consumption, or are concerned about the carcinogenic impact of electromagnetic radiation, simply insert a written note detailing your wishes into the stone wish-holders at each library-station.’
She hands me a tablet from a stack by the door and nods towards an armchair, where a man with wild grey hair and thick glasses is poring over a fragment of parchment.
‘Professor Ahmet is responsible for all library services. He is an expert in the conservation and interpretation of Aramaic scripts; but he is also deaf and dumb, promoting our diversity policy and reducing the risk that any customer could be tempted to speak out loud. You will see we have installed sound meters to alert him to any noise and its provenance. The manuscript cabinets contain a climate-controlled selection of scrolls up to two thousand years old.’ Scarlett smiles. ‘Our wine cabinets contain a selection of vintages of similar rarity, although our oldest bottle is a mere seven decades in age.’
Scarlett shows me the Ion Restaurant, with its array of locally-sourced specialities; the Chrysalis Wellness Zone, where a display advertises “Zen Secrets of the Billion-year-old Mountain”; the Cavern Eco-Pool, occupying a stalactite-studded void deep within the rock; the Baykal Banya, an ultra-hot Russian sauna whose Eagle’s Nest frigidarium features an icy plunge-pool on a terrace overlooking a lake hundreds of metres below; the Koh-i-Noor diamond Boutique, which seems out of place and is mercifully shut; and the Moonrise and Sunset bars, each with cinemascope-sized windows and sublime panoramas over the ecologically-pure landscapes and barely-researched archaeological treasures of the countryside below.
No expense has been spared.
As a brand-new UP-branded hotel, the Caravanserai does not have a Platinum Megastar lounge of the type our chain usually offers for the exclusive use of elite clients. Rather, the whole hotel is designated Ultra-Platinum, with a pricing structure to match. Scarlett shows me the Creativity Club, a hi-tech play-den of artworks, artists’ materials, computer terminals and alcoves.
As a test, I click the E-UP app on my complimentary tablet. It tells me that the Creativity Club is “designed to bring out the genius in you” and that “Here, each evening from 5 to 7 p.m, the Caravanserai’s award-winning executive chef Massimo san Giulio sets out a range of complimentary culinary créations based on famous food-based artworks.”
Tonight, Mr san Giulio has chosen as his artistic reference Cakes, by Wayne Thiebaud, which strikes me as hard on those customers who wish to scrounge a cheap meal by dining on the snacks.
Perhaps that is the idea.
As any hotelier can tell you, the relationship between wealth and parsimony is often a direct one.
So it is tonight. Despite the absence of any remotely savoury flavours on the buffet, several of the hotel’s well-heeled guests have gathered in the Creativity Club to engage in a serious way with the complimentary cakes. One obese gentleman has in front of him eight or nine slices, each individually presented on what I assume is a colour-co-ordinated range of hand-cast artisan-sourced earthenware dessert plates.
He also has lined up in front of him a row of three gin and tonics, concocted from the London speciality craft gins lined up at the free bar and served in our exclusive Ultra Platinum-branded hand-blown English crystal balloon glasses.
I look at his arrangement of plates, cakes and drinks and am struck by its symmetry and vivid colours. In his way, the obese gentleman has created an artwork of his own – a performance piece, since two of the slices of cake have disappeared while I am watching – which Wayne Thiebaud himself would probably appreciate.
It is good to see the Creativity Club living up to its name.
Next, we visit the Sunset Bar. Given that the Creativity Club is still offering free drinks, I am surprised to find the place full of paying customers. In fact, most of them are women in a lively, boisterous group: made-up, finely dressed and apparently ready to party, even though the sun is not due to set for several hours. Two balding, heavily built men in suits strike a jarring tone. Both have glasses of mineral water and laptop computers and glance at me in an appraising way as I appear in the doorway. The only other customer is a solitary young man dressed in black jeans, sneakers and T-shirt, chatting quietly to two of the party women.
By contrast, the Moonrise bar is empty except for a single group of three customers.
A gentleman with a brushed-back mane of white hair and a handsome, deeply-creased face is sitting between two women. One is a young, full-breasted, clear-skinned girl who I am guessing is from the rural regions of the spectacular but corruption-plagued country in whose mountainous fringes the Caravanserai UP nestles so elegantly. The other, who is wearing a blue Chanel suit, is old enough perhaps to be the man’s wife or the young girl’s mother.
I do not think that she is either of these things.
The three of them appear to be engrossed in a difficult conversation. It looks as if the old man and the young girl do not have a common language and the older woman is translating.
The man is frowning. For some reason, he strikes me as a distinguished person – a retired diplomat, perhaps.
A transaction is taking place. I have seen such groups before.
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