Online Exclusive

The Wentworth Hotel and Ballroom
Why is it that when I cross the final street before the Wentworth Hotel my eye is drawn to the weave of electric bus lines bolted with cables to the stuccoed buttresses of the retaining walls, to the concrete-based streetlamps where I have never failed, and do not fail tonight, to see the house painters in their white uniforms? And when will I cease to turn these painters into waylaid soldiers, men who strike me as AWOL, as if it were they who were pretending, as I think all of us at the Wentworth must be pretending, that we are not on the run, that we belong in our wooden chairs at the end of our iced drinks at the end of summer on the bottom of the world?

      Then I have turned the corner into the brick forecourt of the Wentworth Hotel and Ballroom, and here is the imposing façade sick with its own age, the arch that will take me to the inner courtyard where I know Mrs West will be resting in the shade of plane trees with a large-print on her lap. I walk through the vault of the arch and Mrs West raises her book to wave. I head over to her, but she shooes me out of the shade and to the steps where the handrail bakes like pencil lead in the sun. “Go on,” she calls to me. “Don’t you think I know everyone is waiting for you?” Without breaking my stride and knowing I will not pause to hear her reply, I say, “Come on up. We’ll pour you one.”

      On the top floor of the Wentworth the world is larger than I think it will be. Here there is sea, a gleaming bay of it, the shape of the empty hills, shoulders and rising hips, all of it gilded with sand and sprawling to the horizon, to its whitecaps, its black escarpment, the frail stroke of its lighthouse, white and twinkling, a minaret on the brink of vanishing into salt air. 

      On the roof terrace of the Wentworth, among my friends, this second family of a second nation, I am both at the core and edge of life. From our vantage point, living is what goes on below, a scurry of tires, an ascending veil of diesel and Chinese Food, a car door opening ten stories down. From this height, detachment is possible, and the group of us who live here are the survivors of lives no longer lived, some of them ours, some once belonging to others. At the same time, we are not anxious to stay marooned on the shore of being, philosophical, set to one side, our intimacy only another form of loneliness.

      “Mrs West will join us later,” I say. “She’s waiting until after happy hour when the crowd thins.”

      “She isn’t well,” Joan says. Joan is South African. Deep-rutted in the cheeks, black of eye, her tongue not quite as useless as mine in the heights and depths of the New Zealand accent. Joan is feared among the other residents of the Wentworth. If you ask why people avoid her, they will give reasons, such as her dramatic nose, her bookish habits, her aromatic Indian cooking in the common kitchen. The reason they refuse to speak, the truth, is that all of us are scared of her grief. Five years ago, Joan and the man who was then her husband were wading in a riverbed while their two children, Raymond and Marie, swam fifty feet away. Then the cliff beside the stream fell. A few hundred tons, a geologic shrug, Raymond and Marie were gone. Now Joan lives here.

      “What do you mean she isn’t well?” I say. “I just saw her downstairs. She’s reading War and Peace.”

      “The doctor was by,” Michael says. Michael is new at the Wentworth. The other residents draw from a common pool of knowledge about him, which includes the insights of Hera, who works at the front desk. We know Michael’s gainfully employed and that he’s Eastern European, or perhaps merely Russian. Every night he disappears out the back door of the Wentworth and walks the length of the city along its bays. On the day he moved in, he paid for six months in large bills. He has not, Hera has it on good authority, unpacked his suitcase.

      I say, “Did you find out what was wrong?”

      Michael picks up my empty glass, fills it with warm gin from the bottle, and splits the last mouthful of tonic between us. “We are only told it is nothing to fear,” he says. “Just her heart, she tells us, laughing. Like this is nothing.” Joan has been digging into her palms with the stubs of her nails. When she lets off and turns, the transition is so sudden, the flash of her face so abrupt, my thighs bristle, the pores going tight. She walks to the edge of the roof and, as she leans forward, the lights of the waterfront ignite, a line of illumination darkening the sea beyond.

      “The night is just waking up,” she says. A bus stops below. It releases screaming children who disperse into the crowd, into the shrubbery, behind the newly muralled retaining wall. The city clanks metal to metal and emanates layers of light, its streets going thick with people.

      “Listen,” Joan says. Michael and I, one of us on each side of her now, we do as we are told. “Do you hear it?” she says.

      “The sea,” Michael says. “The ocean, is that it?”

      “Yes,” Joan says, “that’s it.”

      A figure in the brick forecourt below stops, waves to us. It’s Hera, the night desk clerk. “Wait for me,” she calls. “I’ll be right there. Be right up.”

Looking from my window later that night, I see the arch of the inner courtyard, the curve of its interior catching light from somewhere, perhaps from the lamp beside my bed. As far as I know Mrs West might still be sitting in the courtyard. It’s solidly black, dense and lost, lightless as a forest of kelp. I return again to the painters, to their white clothes, their arms lifted, as if they were climbing or swimming away, off into the traffic of the street. And perhaps this is where they’ve gone. Maybe tomorrow, for the first time in two years, I will look for them and they won’t be there, and this will be a new omen to be taken up on the rooftop terrace.

      This arch I see from my window, bricked and pink, will not allow me to stay in this moment, nor in this country by the edge of its sea. This arch returns me to America, to my voice, younger, when its words were cut as if from ice, and to think of the future was like rising into the darkness of air. It is in this invented air of my past where I am now living. It is here in a silvering openness like the ocean where all of us gather. In this place we are joined. We are all running, I think, bounding, our chests heaving. I picture the riverbed where Raymond and Marie were buried and I can’t help but to place us there, all of us running as fast as we can and calling to the ones ahead, to the ones further on whom we thought would be waiting when we arrived. 

Thomas Gough is the pen name of Thom Conroy, an American who teaches creative writing at Massey University in New Zealand. His fiction has appeared in various journals in America and New Zealand, including Agni, Alaska Quarterly Review, Prairie Schooner, Landfall, and the New England Review. He is at work on a novel composed in the form of short, self-contained episodes.