Too tired and disorientated to forward-think the next minutes and fearing that they might become hours, my mind runs the sequence of entering Room 321 in reverse, in order to reach the lift, then the foyer, then the entrance doors, then the car park. She stays still in my arms. I step outside to a belt of wind that lashes us both. Ice crystals stud my hands and face, and I swaddle her exposed skin as best as two fleeced limbs can manage. Through the fog, I make out the REU of the number plate, push into the centre of the black fob and the lights give their double amber flutter. The boot door climbs. I watch it, then find the fall of something through the air, picked out by the floodlights and offset against the petrol sky. It is snowing; yet one more unreal aspect to this longest of nights and earliest of mornings. I juggle her from arm to arm, groaning audibly, miserably, and manage to pull the buggy free and set it to the ground and begin reversing once more. The boot door falls, the blinking orange light, the slide of the hotel doors, the reception desk before me. Her weight seems so dense. The buggy there in front of me to receive her, but I’m too scared to try just yet, too exhausted to deal with the possibilities of failure. I stand in front of the desk, not able to think how to progress, not certain which way is forward any more, not sure if there are yet more details to replay.
‘Good morning.’ offers the man at reception. Much younger than me, black jumper and tie, white shirt, black skin and an embracing smile.
‘Hello…’ I offer back, in a weak smiling croak, ashamed by the fume of breath that comes with it, the first time that my mouth and throat have fully interacted since before all this reversing of time and crying began, and the interlude of sleep and the crying before that too. ‘She won’t sleep. Up most of the night. I thought I’d pace around here with the buggy, if that’s okay?’
‘Yes, of course.’ he smiles back, his relatively unmoved demeanour telling me he has no children of his own. ‘I’ve had a strange night myself: a blowout on the way in. Had to leave the car miles away.’ He smiles again and shakes his head in that way that people simultaneously symbolise luck and misfortune. ‘I dunno. Suppose it could have been a lot worse.’
‘Yes….’ is all I can manage by return. My brain can’t quite comprehend ‘blowout’. I look to the tyre of the Mini Cooper parked in the foyer, absurdly mocking both our worries. I start reading, ‘ENTER THE PRIZE DRAW AND YOU COULD WIN–’ and as I do the John Travolta film, Blowout, comes into my head and it feels like I’ve nudged a dial back towards a wavelength that had been skipped previously. ‘That could have been so much worse; you’re fortunate it wasn’t.’
‘Oh, I know,’ he smiles, betraying a far deeper accent which belongs to this city, his city and formerly my city. ‘I think the big man up there,’ and he raises only his eyes, so that they turn almost entirely white with red roots, ‘I think he’s looking after me.’
I ponder ever so briefly an idea of God, something I instinctively do whenever someone brings the topic of their faith into conversation. I envy him such shelter for a second. His story sounds so much more unfortunate than the one which has made narrative of my night. Twenty minutes earlier, when dressing and leaving the room, I hadn’t anticipated someone else’s bad luck usurping my own travails.
I awkwardly try to set the buggy into position on the floor, pushing down levers, separating harness straps and reclining the hood. She grips me but is still: a pause that again confuses as to where we are in the course of night-morning. A final snap confirms the seat ready. My face is specked with the snow or the mist – whatever it was that dawn was conducting – the warmth of the foyer has linked particle to particle and water tickles its way down from my brow, over cheek and under chin. She now lets out her first cry since we so fuzzily began to warp time. He has come round to the front of the desk. I clip her into place and her second and third cries become less and less remonstrative. ‘Would you like a coffee?’ ‘That’s very kind of you.’ I reply, wondering if I do. I’ve always struggled with unexpected generosity from people and I’m surprised by how humbled I feel. ‘Thank you, I would love one.’ I set off, away from the direction he starts off in. I head back towards the lift, stretching each limb taut as I go, arms pushed out erect against the handlebars of the buggy, legs tumescently into each step. I arc away just before the lift and begin the first of the circuits of the foyer that I hope will bring relief to both daughter and father.
And so begin the loops of the night. Or not the night, but the morning. Elliptical repeats. Both forward and reverse.
Through the window the night gives out to dawn and she finds sleep as others are waking. As gym members rush through, as cleaners glide their dusters, as kitchen staff push gently clinking trolleys of glasses and china from one side of the hotel to the other, the day begins to erase the worst of the night that preceded it.
Before sitting down next to the stationed buggy, I return the coffee mug to the desk and find him again, smiling. He is wearing a thick coat, gloves and a hat with flaps that fall like Daschund ears over his own. He has all but finished his night. His work, like mine, is done for now. ‘It worked?’ ‘It worked,’ I smile back, ‘and thank you so much for the coffee. I hope you manage to sort out your car.’ He replies, ‘Not today. I’ll have to catch the bus home. I’m sure it’ll be okay though.’ One last smile and he returns his attention to the last few details of the last few minutes of a night that has spiked and spluttered to an end for us both. I find the same path back to the sofa, check on her once more and look out to see the car park, grey and glistening. No snow. I doubt I saw it there earlier either, when all was so unclear. I let it go; close my eyes, like her eyes, and find a place where finally we can both dare not to repeat. Finally, rest.