The short story is mostly about food, chiefly British food. It's based on real life, too. My parents, who often did not want to "do" Christmas, would book the Christmas week at seaside hotels, which offered to provide sufficient food, drink, companionship and fun to make the season go by with minimal effort on the part of the 'rents. My parents would be able to drink without driving, eat without spending hours undercooking the turkey, dance without buying any K-Tel Christmas Hit albums and so forth.
This was all true, but there was a darker side to the endeavor. You had to drive through half-frozen brown slush a hundred miles to a semi-deserted 70's seaside resort (think of a sort of English ocean-side Detroit) in the middle of winter. A desperate hotelier, soon to be immortalized by John Cleese in the far-too-close-to-reality Fawlty Towers, has thrown open his failing hotel to people who can't be bothered to "do" their own Christmas, which means he and his staff have to schlep all through the holidays without a minute for themselves and their own families.
Sometimes the resulting holiday was fine, and sometimes it was ludicrously bad. At this remove I can't even remember which towns, never mind which hotels, but I assume Whitby featured - I can remember the steep hills - and Scarborough, and Bridlington. One (the one with the reconstituted instant potatoes) was so bad that I vaguely recall my parents left, or got their money back, or somesuch. And then there was the one with the famous cricketer's daughter, hogging the dim limelight provided by being booked into a two or three star hotel for Christmas.
So, here's the story.
There were lions lying incongruously at the foot of the stairs. The staircase, fifty feet broad at the base, arched and narrowed at the top like the train of a lady's gown reproduced in local rock. The steps were of blackened sandstone which had weathered to expose a robust oval grain, and the same acid rain had etched the concrete lions, but these having no inner texture, the lions had merely weathered into grinning doglike caricatures. At the top of the stairs there were red-painted doors, glossy and chipped, inset with windows frosted with leaves and berries. It seemed rather a small entrance for such a magnificent red-brick Victorian edifice, five storeys tall and – I determined later when I could get far enough back to see the extent of it – almost ten windows long and four deep. I estimated that Hotel Aperio was larger than 150 rooms.
As an alternative to the stairs, one could go up the wheelchair access ramp, cheaply and latterly introduced at the side of the stairs and far too steep, which made the hotel's formerly grand entrance look like a that of a crazy municipal hospital. I went up the ramp, dragging sullen luggage behind me and almost toppling backwards as my high heels met the unnatural pitch. Inside the double doors, the lobby was the size of a generous Punch and Judy Show, and a man sat behind a tinseled hatch, watching television on a portable about the size of a toaster, which despite its diminutive size loomed large on the cluttered counter. I rang his bell, a classic desktop bell, silver and with a commanding ding. Although he had seen me, he ignored me until he heard the ding, acting out his own part perfectly. One assumed he had plenty of chance to practice over the years.
"Can I help you?"