This is a photograph showing some of the venerable and iconic buildings which form part of the Cathedral Green in Exeter. It was taken on a sunny summer's day in 2006. All of the old buildings visible in the picture, with the exception of the red-brick block behind the church, survived the Baedeker bombing raids during World War II. Who could have predicted that ten years later the Royal Clarence Hotel, dating back to 1769 and said to be the first hotel in England, would have been destroyed by fire in October, 2016?
I worked in Exeter for many years and it's hard to count the number of times I have not only walked past but attended events at the hotel. It feels like a backdrop to my best memories of the city and Cathedral Green in particular. More importantly on a personal level it has inspired - and appeared in (under another guise) my writing.
By way of a little tribute to my memories of the place, here is an extract from my current work-in-progress 'Stopping Time' which takes place in a hotel similar to, and based on, the Royal Clarence. There is no need to introduce the characters - they speak for themselves...
GLIMPSES FROM 'STOPPING TIME' by P R Ford
They reached the hotel entrance where double doors opened into a cool shady lobby. Julia clearly knew exactly where she was, for she led Garamond down a passage and into the lounge bar which at this time of day was fairly quiet, with few customers. Those few were obviously business people, some with open laptops placed at angles on the dark wooden tables. Conversations were being conducted in low voices, and Garamond appreciated Julia’s discretion in bringing him here.
An impeccably attired young man, anticipating their needs, ushered them to a table which stood on its own in a secluded corner and asked them what they would like to drink.
“I’ll have a black coffee, please,” Julia told him. The man looked expectantly at Garamond, who was prepared for this and said:
“I would like water.”
“Still or carbonated, Sir?” he was asked, and threw an anxious glance at Julia who replied for him.
“Still, please. No ice.” She smiled up at the young man who thanked them and silently withdrew.
There was an awkward pause during which neither looked at the other. Then Garamond said,
“Thank you for meeting me here. I wish to ask you to do something for me. It is very important.”
“I suppose,” Julia replied coolly, “this is something to do with Helen?”
He nodded, and the uncomfortable silence which followed lasted for several minutes. Their drinks were served, and Julia quietly stirred her coffee as she considered how to react.
Garamond simply sat, with his hands on his knees, as he mulled over her words. Julia remembered that his people behaved like this, and also recalled how annoying it was. She drank some more of her coffee and waited for him to speak. Eventually he said,
“I need to consider this. It would seem that all is not as we had supposed.”
“Well, while you consider it, I need to get back to the office!” Julia announced. She drank the rest of her coffee and prepared to leave, but as she was about to stand up a man who had been sitting in the obscurity of a nearby alcove rose to his feet and strode quietly across to their table.
“Hello Julia,” he said jovially, holding out his hand to her. They both looked up at him in surprise. He was middle-aged; a smartly dressed rather overweight man with thinning dark hair swept back off a round, kindly face. His skin glowed from the warmth.
“Titus!” Julia exclaimed, taking his hand and standing up as she did so. “How nice to see you!” And how opportune, she thought as she withdrew her hand and pulled her bag up on to her shoulder.
“Have you taken to entertaining your clients here, then?” he asked her with mock amusement, before turning his sharp gaze upon Garamond who had remained seated.
“Oh, of course!” she laughed back. She wondered whether or not to introduce Garamond, and the dilemma must have shown itself on her face, because the man immediately said,
“Don’t let me interrupt you. I just wanted to say ‘hello’ in passing.”
“No, no, I was just leaving,” Julia explained. “I am dreadfully busy, you know what it’s like.” She leaned down to Garamond and said in a low voice, almost threatening in its tone, “I will meet you back here in a couple of hours, alright? But then: that’s it.” She waited until he nodded his acceptance of her offer. Then she turned a bright gaze upon the other man saying, “I’ll see you again, Titus. Take care!”
Heedless of the dilemma in which she was leaving them both, she turned and strode over to the bar, where despite her annoyance she had the decency to pay for their refreshments.
The man called Titus turned towards Garamond and their eyes met in a flash of mutual understanding.
“Hello, Garamond,” said Titus as he sat down on the chair which Julia had just vacated.
“Greetings, Titus,” replied his brother-in-law. “I wondered if we would meet.”
To any innocent observers within the hotel this could have been a meeting between two ordinary people: one a businessman, the other a tourist. Both of these people, however, were aware of the truly bizarre nature of their encounter. Titus was no more human than Garamond.
The two of them closed their eyes and attempted to make contact telepathically, but any kind of sensitive ambience in the atmosphere was at that moment dispelled by the barman switching on a loud burst of taped music. They both flinched, glancing up and around them, Garamond slightly unnerved but Titus driven to annoyance. This was clearly a feature of his new life on Earth which he did not enjoy. He threw Garamond a brief smile before focussing his attention on the barman. A few persuasive thoughts later the man rubbed at his short haircut and moved across to reduce the volume almost to silence.
Half an hour passed, during which time the barman was mentally persuaded to entirely ignore the two men who appeared to be asleep at one of the tables. A few customers came and went, and they also seemed not to notice this bizarre behaviour, although one much older man who had been reading a newspaper when they arrived found the atmosphere so relaxing that he also fell asleep...
|Exeter Cathedral - front|