The hotel lobby was both cleansed and fragrant, as was the receptionist speaking softly on the phone behind the desk. The owners obviously wanted to welcome people to their establishment, to encourage them to return there for further visits or to recommend it to their friends and associates. The owners wanted this to take place so that they could make money – that was the primary reason, Marguerite thought. Personally, he had insufficient funds to stay at that or any other hotel – it was not just an issue of people wanting beds and the hotel providing them, along with other facilities, perhaps, such as a restaurant. You really did need money or a means of payment to cover your temporary residence there. It might not be your own money: you might be there to attend a conference, for instance, if you were a white-collar worker, in which case your employers may have paid for your stay at the hotel. As a blue-collar worker you might be visiting a nearby factory, say, from your home in another part of the world, and you might need to stay overnight at the hotel. In this latter instance, there would be a judgement by your boss (who would almost always be a white-collar worker – who would work, that is, in the office as well as occasionally, perhaps, on the factory floor) about whether or not you would be able to get back from your visit in the same day and/or whether it would be so inconvenient for you to do so that it would be worth staying over, as it is known. Your boss would judge whether, for instance, you would get home after midnight, which is to say in the early hours, rather than at your normal seven or eight o’clock, back for your evening meal, perhaps prepared by your wife, always, in fact, to Marguerite’s mind, prepared by your wife, who would not have a job of her own, who could not be categorised into white- or blue-collar, who would always simply be there. In the case where you stayed over she would receive a phone call from you, perhaps from the office of the firm you were visiting, just as you were leaving there to go to the hotel, or perhaps from the hotel itself just after you had arrived there, once you had checked in, to say that you had arrived, that you had checked in, that the visit to the other firm went well, or went badly, or went some other way in between those two options or outside of them, such as ‘it went very well’ or ‘it went exceptionally well’ or ‘it went really badly’, and it would be a novelty to make that call, especially from the hotel, to say that you were making that call from the hotel or from the B and B.
And there would be nothing to stop you, with the blessing of your white-collar boss, from taking your wife with you. Your boss would perhaps justify this in his mind by the fact that you, a valued and trusted employee, were doing a job for him, a white-collar job that is, for a couple of days that he might have had to do himself, and that you were going out of your way to do it, as it were, spending more time than you would ordinarily be contracted to do, and it would not cost the firm (your firm) any more money probably for your wife to go on the trip with you, ‘to keep you company’ – your boss would perhaps put it in those terms – on the long journey because, as has already been established, implicitly if not explicitly, it would have to be a long journey otherwise your boss would not have approved your stay at the hotel, perhaps giving you some ‘petty cash’ to cover other expenses along the way, such as petrol or food. There would be no harm, then, in you taking your wife along with you on the trip – many hotels will give you a double room even if you are a single person. That is to say that many (at least) hotel beds (that is, beds in hotels) are double (at least) in size and some (no doubt) are queen- or king-size (a size that will be defined in due course) and the marginal costs associated with staying in such a room as a single person compared to a couple were not as great as the difference between a single person staying or not staying at that hotel.
The blue-collar worker in question would, Marguerite thought, be quite senior in the firm or would, at least, be quite senior amongst the ranks of the blue-collar workers at the firm, even perhaps being the most senior – in terms of age or years of service at that firm or total years of service – or would be the most trustworthy and/or responsible individual in those ranks, and would thus be justified in taking, with the blessing of his boss, or the firm’s owner, or both, or both in one (that is if the owner also runs the firm day-to-day) his (that is, the blue-collar worker’s) wife with him on the visit to the other firm, that visit involving a journey of some distance from his home or from his own firm, thereby necessitating a stay in a hotel which, for convenience (and common sense) reasons would be a much shorter distance from the firm that he was visiting than his (and his wife’s) own home was. The boss or owner or both or both-in-one would make the judgement that they were prepared to fund the marginal costs of the couple compared to the single person to compensate their senior blue-collar employee for the additional time spent in making the visit to the other firm. It would be seen by the senior blue-collar worker in question and his wife as a perk of his position as one of, or the, senior blue-collar worker in the firm, or the most experienced (in that firm or in other firms) or the most trustworthy and/or responsible of that rank of worker at that firm or one of the workers seen in those terms by the management and owners of that firm or both or both-in-one.
It was much more routine for the white-collar worker to stay in a hotel. That is not to say that the above considerations did not enter the mind of the white-collar worker or his boss (etc). It is just to say that it is unlikely that there would be the same frisson of excitement in the white-collar worker’s mind that existed in the blue-collar worker’s mind under the scenario described. The other consideration in this distinction between blue- and white-collar workers and their respective visits to an hotel (and notice that the use of ‘an’, in this instance, itself adds a frisson of perhaps sexual excitement to the word hotel and that the means by which it does this is by effectively silencing the ‘h’, thereby transporting, at a stroke, the hotel from the Anglo Saxon world to the Gallic world, with the concomitant sense of style and relaxed sexual expressiveness that that entails) was that the white-collar worker would be more likely, in Marguerite’s mind, to be female rather than male, in which case one would have to reverse the example from wife-companion to husband-companion. This brought up any number of issues of masculinity, ‘bread-winning’ and male potency for the husband-companion that Marguerite did not have the urge or the inclination to go into, at least not at that moment.
The other advantage of the wife accompanying (in the case of the blue- or white-collar worker) or the husband accompanying (in the case of the white-collar worker and, Marguerite conceded, very occasionally or occasionally, in the case of the blue-collar worker) their spouse on the trip and for the stay in the hotel was that it dispelled, or at least reduced, any suspicion that the husband or wife undertaking the trip (that is, the prime mover) was having an affair and that the trip itself was just a cover for that affair. It did not completely dispel the suspicion that the blue- or white-collar worker may be having an affair of course. The request to the husband or wife to accompany their spouse could indeed be part of the web of deception and calculation designed to send the spouse off the scent for a little while longer in relation to the affair that the husband or wife was engaged in. The reader will no doubt be familiar, from other forms, with the exposure of the call to the manager (etc) of the firm who asks the innocent (to their mind) question ‘what trip?’ and, with that simple question lays bare the web of deception and calculation that the husband or wife had been engaged in for perhaps some time, as had been the case with Isobel Absalon just before her husband disappeared. Now, in following Isobel Absalon into the hotel and seeing her disappear, with a pushchair, into the lift, Marguerite wanted simply to find out whether – and if so, how – the hotel that he had just entered related to Harold Absalon’s disappearance, whilst I, in turn, want to know what will happen to me when he’s found.
Knowing that he could only continue his surveillance whilst the receptionist remained on the telephone and was therefore unable to apprehend him, Marguerite focused again on the numbers above the lift doors and noticed that Isobel Absalon had reached the third storey of the hotel.
The bed involved in Harold Absalon’s case was king- rather than queen-sized, the latter being smaller than the former, even though some queens, surely, were larger than some kings. Was it an average that was taken? It seemed more likely to Marguerite that the sizes were modelled on particular monarchs – perhaps on a regal couple where the king (say Harold VIII) was more sizeable than the queen(s), in which case what happened in other countries? If it were one particular king and queen, whether they were a couple or otherwise, upon whom the sizes were modelled then was it only in the motherland and in the former colonies that such sizes existed? Was it, in fact, one of these former colonies that had coined the terms king- and queen-sized with due deference to the monarch who had been presiding at that time? But what if the terms were coined at different times, as now seemed more likely to Marguerite? Surely king-sized beds appeared first, with queen-sized beds appearing perhaps much later. In that case he thought it unlikely that the king and queen in question were a couple, that they had reigned in concord, so to speak, had sat on the throne at the same time, had sat on their thrones at the same time, during, that is, their shared reign, rather than at the same time of day, when they were not in their bed. And this brought to mind another matter which strengthened Marguerite’s conviction that the king and queen in question did not reign concurrently, which was this: what size of bed would they have slept in had they reigned together, that is if they had shared a bed? The Queen in this instance might object to sleeping (or simply being, at those moments when she wasn’t sleeping) in a bed the proportions of which suited her husband much better; she might feel somewhat lost in its expanses, assuming that this is a case in which the queen was smaller in height, but not necessarily in girth, than the king. Similarly the king might object (with more reason, to Marguerite’s mind) to having to deal with the dimensions of a queen-sized bed – Marguerite pictured the regal male feet hanging beyond the edge of plushness, and the king perhaps getting a chill, which could, if it developed into pneumonia, precipitate any number of constitutional crises, assuming that the king, again, were taller than the queen in this example.
In fact, Marguerite remembered, as he watched the number three light up above the lift doors, that the sizes ‘king-’ and ‘queen-’ referred, in fact, to the width, rather than the length, of the bed. All of his reflections relating to height rather than girth should, then, be disregarded. Instead the wing span of the monarch should be considered, with the bejewelled royal hands hanging over the side replacing the royal toes at the end of the bed in discomforted chill. Notice that the two regal size categories conveyed nothing about the style of bed. Marguerite’s view was that one typically imagines kings and queens alike sleeping in four-poster beds, the overhead structure of which must, therefore, reflect the size (king- or queen-) of the bed itself. The size says nothing about the curtains and other drapes flowing down the sides of the king’s and/or queen’s bed so that it almost forms a room in itself, one in which the servants do not have access, or only in the most exceptional circumstances, which have not been adequately documented in the history books to Marguerite’s mind. The absence of any such drapery in Harold Absalon’s case – or, indeed, of any overhead structure whatsoever – had afforded surveillance a clear sight of the scene. It was this footage that had set Marguerite on the trail of Isobel Absalon, the wife of the missing transport advisor, whom, he noticed, had just passed through the fourth floor of the hotel.
Simon Okotie was born to Nigerian/English parents. His family moved to rural Norfolk in the late seventies – seemingly one of few black families in the region. This is an extract from his novel Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon?, forthcoming from Salt Publishing.
 They started calling me ‘Harold’ in the project office shortly after he disappeared. I thought it was a joke to start with, and ignored it. But I just couldn’t shake it off.
 Harold Absalon was from a different background to the others in the office but was, at the same time, their superior. That was what I found so interesting about him when he first arrived. So often, in that situation, when someone was from a different background to the great mass of the people then they would not, or could not, be led by that person. No, when someone was different and found themselves in that position of authority then there could be real problems – people would want, in my experience, to tear that person apart.