It had a name that didn’t fit the city – the English city – the city I unravelled in. The Rialto, meaning exchange, or marketplace, conjures up golden sunsets and winding city streets that smell of carefully made espressos and car exhausts. At first, it was located near the university; then close to the town hall; then it was next to the opera house; then near the home of a man who treated me very badly.
Sometimes it changed locations multiple times a day. I started off some of my mornings with a long walk, around the docks, breathing in the dirty water and looking at the buildings. If I grew fatigued, or if the label of my leggings started itching my lower back, or I just simply didn’t want to move anymore, I would turn a corner and there it would be: The Rialto. I would enter the foyer, tired and anxious, and I would shower and try to think only of the hot water, and being naked, and the soap suds. And then I would leave through the front doors and find myself yards away from where I needed to be.
It had been booked by the university finance team, who were funding my short archival research trip. They had picked it out, they said, because it was the closest to the university campus I was visiting. The first night I arrived in the city, the weather was terrible. It was late in the evening because my train had been delayed several times. I watched helplessly as the crowds of people squeezed themselves into all of the taxis available. I had to walk. I remembered from my internet searches that it was around twenty-five minutes away from the train station. I set off, only to find, to my pleasure, that The Rialto was right there, five minutes away.
According to his nametag, the man on reception was called MICHAEL and he smiled just enough. He asked me how I was and I told him I was soaked through but I was so happy that the walk had been short. Michael told me I must be a fast walker because we were near the university and that was quite a distance from the train station – I was here for the university, yes? That is what the booker told us? How are your feet?
How are my feet?
Do they hurt, from the walking?
Yes, actually, now you mention it, they do hurt. My shoes are new and they still have some breaking in to do. They pinch, you know?
We offer a complimentary shoe-shining service. Just leave your shoes outside the door, and we’ll get those cleaned right up for you.
Thank you, I might.
I can see that your reservation has been paid for in advance, and that breakfast is included in the rate. Breakfast is served between 6 a.m. and 10.30 a.m. Please sign here to agree to our no smoking policy.
(I signed here to agree to the no smoking policy.)
Thank you, here is your key to your room, which is number 315. You are on the third floor, please take the elevator up, turn right and go down the corridor. Would you like some assistance with your luggage?
(I look down at my small suitcase, holding knickers and a toothbrush and a laptop and two jumpers, and whatever else it is that takes up the cavern of a suitcase.) No thank you, I can manage.
Wonderful. I hope you enjoy your stay at The Rialto.
Off I went, up into the night. In the lift mirror, I watched the rain drip from my hair on to my shoulders and down my arms. He had called it an elevator and I found it odd; it stuck out to me. It was the right word, but in the wrong context, the context being this English city with no taxis and too much rain.
The room was bigger than I thought it would be, but not too big for a three-night solo stay. It had a desk and a coffee machine and a big bed, as well as the rest: hangers for my clothes, a dressing gown, towels, toiletries, an ironing board. I was very tired. I remembered what Michael had said about the shoe-shining service and I thought, well why not? They were black brogues and I had not lied about them pinching me, but I had lied about them being new. They were cheap and didn’t fit well. I set them outside my door.
I woke up in what felt like the next moment. I looked at my phone – 6.30 a.m. exactly. Breakfast would be starting. I would get some food and I would walk around the city to get my bearings, and then I would go to the university.
Except The Rialto did not wish for me to get my bearings. The hotel wished to protect me too much, it wanted me to always feel secure. During that first stay, I thought that I just didn’t know the city well; the English city, the city with the university and the town hall and the opera house and the man who treated me very badly. Really, it was because the hotel was staying too close. I could never work out the streets from one another because I didn’t have a central point of reference.
But, that first time, I didn’t know all of this. I put on my socks and opened my door and found that my shoes were there, free of any dirt and shining brightly. I put them on and walked down the stairs – I didn’t want to go down in the elevator – and followed the smell of breakfast food. I ended up back in reception, where a smiling woman, with a name tag saying SHAINA, was standing.
Good morning! Are you looking for breakfast? Just follow this hallway here, all the way down (and she pointed to a hallway that I would go all the way down).
Thank you. By the way, could you thank Michael for me? He suggested I have my shoes shined and they have turned out very nice.
Of course, yes, I will pass that on.
Off I went down the hallway (all the way down) and I found myself in a long dining hall with tall windows. There were one or two people seated, and light jazz music tinkered from an unknown source. The room smelled like coffee and bacon.
I approached the host stand and a young man came hurrying over wishing me Good morning! and asking, What is your room number, please? Tea or coffee? I was seated and told to help myself to the buffet, which stretched out on one side of the room in all of its silver-trayed possibilities. I went and got myself a tiny bowl of cereal and a plate of tiny danishes. When I got back to my table, a pot of steaming coffee had been brought over, which poured beautifully into my cup.
While I ate, I thought about my shoes and how they weren’t pinching my toes anymore. As I had walked around the dining room, they felt solid but comfortable, as if they had been stretched out to fit my feet exactly. Now I know that whatever the fundamental makeup of The Rialto is – the thing that made it hop and skip around the streets – probably did this to my shoes, too. This was perhaps the beginning of me being weighed down in this city, so that all I could do was stand still and disintegrate from the cranium down. But that came later…
I took a walk, in my comfortable shoes. In the early morning, the day was clear but cold, as if the rain of the night before had emptied the sky so that all that was left was a reluctant sun. I walked around the old, eighteenth-century docks and I looked into the bodies of water that stood still under sleek and silver bridges. It is always very odd seeing new and old architecture intermingling, touching one another, saying hello across the years. ‘I was built with stolen wealth,’ says one – but which?
I grew tired, listening to these conversations. I had walked for maybe forty minutes, and the thought of the walk back gave me the jitters. I meandered back in the same direction I had walked in from, passing sleeping shop fronts and cafés that yawned and turned away from me. To my surprise, the architecture started to look familiar again, until I came across The Rialto’s sign jutting out into the street. I must have gone the long way around, and walked the short way back, I thought. I had only been walking for five minutes.
I went back to my room, smiling at Shaina on the way back in through reception, and I sat for some time. I showered, turning the heat up to almost scorching levels, and stared off into the middle distance, thinking about how I didn’t need to pay the water bill for this luxury.
I spent the rest of the day in the university library. It had been easy to find, which I was pleased about because it meant I could get straight to it – I didn’t have to collect little bits of myself back from an anxious haze before I started. I was looking at the letters of a mid-twentieth- century writer I was researching. I had reached a point in my writing where I could see I had sizable gaps in the information I had. I was thinking through the ways she, a communist, had manifested her politics in her private life, and how this came through in her fiction, which was often not about communism at all, at least not obviously. Her writing had a lot of melancholic women in it; sad women who roamed around Europe (as she did), staying with friends who were artists and poets and journalists and political activists (as she did), having a lot of sex (not sure if she did – maybe the letters would tell me). She had died in this English city, before the silver bridges were built – alone, penniless and bloated from drink – which is why her correspondences were kept here. They had been gathered from all four corners of the world for the library archive, which had become like a little amusement park of her life.
I spent the next three days waking up early, walking around the streets and the docks, reading over her letters, of which there were many, and making notes on my laptop. Every night I walked back to The Rialto and I ordered room service: a club sandwich with Coke; coronation chicken salad with sparkling water; rump steak with chips and a glass of red wine for my final night. I would eat these slowly and with intention while sitting at the desk in my room. I had ordered alcohol with my last meal because I was processing a particular letter; it had hit me very hard. In it, the writer had said:
Sometimes I think that I am attracted to the cause of communism because I would like to be cared for like a child. I think of the ideal state and I see it as a kind of nurturing Mother. Even as I write this, I know what you will be thinking, because I am thinking it too (we always were on the same page, weren’t we, Pietro?). The state, and our lives under it, would of course be harsh – we would work hard and we would do work that we might not even enjoy. But even that harshness is an act of love, a love for citizens, a love for each other. Whatever you think, the fact remains – I don’t know whether I would be as attracted to the cause if I hadn’t had a rotten childhood, a rotten mother.
According to the date, this was one of the last letters she sent before her death aged forty-seven. It had provided answers to questions that had come up in my research of her (why did she always write about mothers leaving their children? Why was care, and a lack of care, so intrinsic to the interpersonal relationships in her fiction? Why did she never talk about her childhood before the age of twelve in any of her biographical pieces or correspondences, aside from this one?) It also moved me – I thought of her alone, longing to be looked after, realising that her politics were inherently bound up with her past and with her psyche, and questioning it, questioning it all. I thought about all of these things as I chewed my food.
It was during my next stay that I realised that something was wrong. The city council had been in touch with me and asked if I wanted to participate in the opening of a public exhibition they were putting on in the town hall. They were exhibiting the personal effects of notable people who had lived in the city, and some of my writer’s letters would be on display. As I was one of the only scholars in the country working on her, I was invited to speak briefly about her life and career, and to read aloud some of her work. They had specified fiction, and I was disappointed because I wanted to read out the letter about the state/mother. It had become the absolute crux of my research in the intervening months since I had first read it.
The council said they would cover my travel and accommodation for one night, so I said yes, but I asked them if it was possible for them to pay in advance and not after my stay. They agreed, and forwarded the hotel and train confirmations: they had booked me into The Rialto.
On this particular occasion, my feet found their way to the hotel from the train station. I was in a daze – I was nervous about the reading. Once again, the time it took to get there seemed too short, too convenient, but I wasn’t really concentrating so it didn’t alarm me.
I was greeted by an employee I hadn’t seen before – a small blonde woman with a name tag that said SOPHIE. I gave her my name and she typed away and looked at her screen – tap tap tap. She smiled at me, and said, Oh welcome back and check-in time isn’t for a little while yet, but good news! Your room is ready. We have allocated the same one as last time, does that work?
Yes that’s lovely, thank you.
Breakfast is the same time as usual. I can see it has been taken care of. Here is your key. Do you need any assistance with anything for this stay?
Yes, could you tell me where the town hall is from here, please? And also what street we are on? I’ve never been able to –
The town hall is just the next street over –
The phone began to ring, shrill and unrelenting. Sophie looked at me apologetically and picked it up, announcing herself and the hotel’s name.
I spent the afternoon being stupid in my room, loafing around between the bed, the bath and the armchair, too uneasy to do anything much. The view from my room that looked across the street was the same as last time – the same nondescript brick buildings, but something was off, something was very off. I had, however, been delighted to find that I had three packets of complimentary biscuits on my tea and coffee station, instead of the usual two. I ate these throughout the afternoon, savouring the buttery golden taste. They were the first thing I had eaten all day; payday was still another week away and I had run out of cereal at home.
I found myself at the podium in the town hall, thanking the curator who had introduced me, not really knowing where the time had gone. The building had been on the next street, as Sophie had said, looming large and authoritative. I read the short summary I had written on the author, briefly alluding to her politics and her sad death, but mainly concentrating on how she was seen as a fun woman, a good time. I wasn’t lying, she was seen like this, but anyone who would read her letters would see that she wasn’t having fun or having a good time. That was their problem to find out.
I read an excerpt from a novella that she wrote for a quick cheque while she was living in Paris. It was a sexy story overall, an easy sell, but I picked out some non-raunchy paragraphs from its concluding chapter. In it, the protagonist walked the Parisian streets, watching the rising, golden sun glint from the window panes, thinking about the nature of hope. There were some poignant phrases – ‘it is easy to lose sight of hope, but when I walk around a city I love, I don’t just see it, I feel it’ – which I knew would go down well. I felt smug in the secret knowledge that the paragraphs I didn’t read out had some graphic descriptions of sex; the novella ended with the main character getting railed on a creaking bed by her lover.
The reading was over in an instant, it seemed, and I was being clapped off stage in time for the next person to introduce their person. I stood next to the refreshment table and slyly picked up a plastic cup of red wine, my third of the night if I remembered correctly, which I probably didn’t. I looked in the direction of the podium, arranging my face so it looked like I was listening to whoever was speaking about whatever it was they were speaking about. And then they were being clapped off the stage too, and the curator was back and he was telling us all to feel free to look at all the wonderful artefacts on display and to help ourselves to the drinks!
I picked up another red wine, sliding the last cup under my new cup, so it felt sturdy in my hands, the only sturdy thing about me that day. A few people approached and said that my writer seemed like a fascinating woman, a good time, a fun character and I nodded and agreed even though it felt like I was underwater while they were talking to me from a great height and I didn’t agree at all, not at all.
It was that night that I met the man who would go on to treat me very badly. I was quite drunk by the time he approached me and so was he, judging by his pink cheeks. He was smiling at me in a sly way, not quite a smirk, and he said, I know your secret. The book you read from… you didn’t exactly capture the essence of the text as a whole –
I thought it was funny, didn’t you? All these unsuspecting people… I love the thought of them buying the book, or taking it out from the library or whatever, expecting a little reflective story about an intelligent girl wandering around Paris but instead finding – Filth! It was very funny.
Obviously we went home together that night, ‘home’ being the hotel. I told him where I was staying, and I garbled something about it being fantastic because it was close to both the university and to here, a serendipitous little site for my work. He laughed and told me that the university was miles away – how many of those free wines have you had? I was too drunk to feel abashed.
We spent the next few weeks texting constantly. He complained about his museum job, specifically a manager he didn’t like, and I talked about my research. He was a big fan of my writer and, from what I could infer, was the person who pushed for her to be in the exhibition.
Eventually he suggested that I come back to the city for a bank holiday weekend, or he come to me. He said he would like to host me but he was having electricity problems in his home. I wasn’t sure about him visiting me, so I suggested a hotel; at that point, I preferred to think of us in that context: transient and without inhibition. I took out a new credit card and when it arrived, I found The Rialto’s surprisingly sparse website and booked a three-night stay. I called him and told him about it, and he was so pleased that it made my arms ache. He then told me that he had got us tickets for the opera, which thrilled me.
On the Friday evening, he met me at the station in his car, and I was so in awe of him that I didn’t take note of the direction he was driving in. We ended up at the hotel, and I said Oh, you found it –
That weekend was wonderful. We had breakfast sent up to the room every morning and we held hands at the opera, which, unsurprisingly at this point, was only a short walk away. As this was his hometown, I thought he might notice the strange geography that the city centre took on whenever one ventured out of The Rialto, but he didn’t. He said to me several times that he liked the hotel very much; it was comfortable and the staff were friendly.
I went home and I struggled on. I found it difficult to be in lust; thoughts of the past, as well as possible futures, encroached on my daily activities. I would write for ten minutes and then find myself thinking about his fingers, his hands. It was becoming difficult to bear, so I suggested that he visit me. He was there that weekend, and we spent the whole time wrapped up in each other, skin on skin.
Weeks went by, and we continued to call and text each other, but another invite from him was not extended. I became stubborn – surely we should take it in turns? I was also due a stay at his house; he had seen my horrible little home and now I wanted to see his. I assumed it was nicer than mine. From what I could tell, his job was well paid and he always wore good quality shirts. There was an expensive smell to him. He was an adult entity to me, someone who had the essence of a sturdy grown-up.
An opportunity to attend a conference in his city (it was now his city) was extended to me; I was asked to chair a panel on twentieth-century English writers who wrote in and about continental Europe. I checked with the finance department, and yes, they were able to fund a hotel stay with expenses. As soon as I received confirmation of this, I knew that I would once again find myself in The Rialto, tethered to a building that didn’t want to let me go. I accepted it, and was comforted by it. I didn’t have to worry about where I was at any given time.
I texted him and told him that I would once again be in his city, and I would stay at the same hotel, and he was of course free to join me. He asked me what dates I was staying, and I told him, and he became evasive. He couldn’t really do weekdays, he was really busy with work, but he’d try and ‘pop in’ –
I felt ridiculous and ashamed so I ignored him. I knew it was ending, and that I probably wouldn’t be afforded an explanation. I arrived in the city, and yes, of course, no taxis, so I started walking and yes, of course, there was the hotel. I wasn’t bothered anymore; I had no capacity to be shocked by it. I didn’t really feel anything. Even physical sensation had begun to lose its impact. In the days before the trip, I had turned on the heat in my university office because autumn was approaching and it was growing cold. I had sat next to my radiator to re-read a chapter from a biography of my writer and hadn’t noticed that I had burned my arm by leaning against it until I caught sight of the scald. I cleaned it and wrapped it in a bandage from the first aid kit in the shared kitchen, but I couldn’t feel anything, even when it scabbed over and should have been itchy.
I attended the conference and I attempted to be enthusiastic as I chaired the panel. I took advantage of the free sandwiches and coffee, and I stashed some wrapped biscuits in my bag. I allowed people to speak at me about research and funding and departmental politics and their vice- chancellors and whatever the government was saying about academics now. I watched the words leave their mouths and then dissipate in the air, and then I watched myself say words back, but they had no connection to me, I had nothing to do with them.
He texted me that night, as I thought he might. I was drunk by that point and so I told him my room number. It felt like he was in the room in the next second.
Did I say hello, even? Or did I just rush to him, thinking that his physical validation of my body would make me feel it again? It didn’t work. We had the kind of urgent sex that is more about the release than the build up, and I knew that it wasn’t my release that was being prioritised. He buried his face into the pillow so I had no access to him, no way in. I wanted to open myself up, unzip my body down the torso so that he could reach inside and see the emptiness, then ease himself in so he could fill me up. Instead he finished and rolled away, barely meeting my eyes, and I knew it was over.
We spoke briefly, about nothing, and then he made his excuses and was out of the door. I lay there for a couple of seconds and then I picked my clothes off the floor and dressed. I quietly stole out, taking the stairs, and went out through the quiet foyer into the street. I could see him turning the corner and I followed him. I stayed several steps behind him the whole way, willing him not to turn around, to keep looking ahead so he didn’t see me. He didn’t and I thought, of course you wouldn’t.
The walk back to his home took no more than fifteen minutes, and I knew that this was in normal time and not The Rialto’s time, which was always looping back on itself, taking the city’s geography with it. I watched him unlock the door of a large house in what I knew to be a wealthy area, an area where the colonisers and merchants lived one hundred and fifty years ago. He shouted Hello! and I heard what I expected to hear: shouts of Daddy! and Hello darling, that was a late one. The door closed behind him. I began walking, trying to feel the solid ground under my feet but still unable to feel anything at all – anything at all – until I found myself in the pleasant foyer of The Rialto, which had appeared at the end of the street.
Jess White is a writer based in Liverpool. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, i-D, Dazed, The Face and The Irish Times. She is currently completing a PhD in English at University of Liverpool.
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