I find it ironical that, in one of the coldest springs on record, I have already visited five seaside resorts: Robin Hood’s Bay, Whitby, Brighton, Cromer and now Bournemouth. Temperatures were low during all of these visits, but cold comes in many guises, each one having a different effect upon enjoyment. Robin Hood’s Bay and Whitby were bracing and sunny; Brighton snowy, with a vicious wind whipping in from the East; the similarly cutting wind in Cromer was accompanied by some sunny intervals; and, at Bournemouth, where I have just spent four days, there was initial bright sunshine, followed by cloud, followed by two days of driving rain and then, just as I was departing, bright sunshine once again, this time accompanied by some real warmth.
By circumstance now something of a 2013 seaside connoisseuse, I’ve had the opportunity to discover that I much prefer the rugged east coast to the smoother, more luxuriant yellow sands and vast bays of the south. To my amusement, I have also been able to verify a colleague’s observation that Bournemouth has two faces: one for the weekend; another for the working week. I’ve stayed there several times before when attending conferences, but this was the first time that I’d needed to arrive at the weekend. I’d previously considered Bournemouth to be a refined sort of place, but I now know that weekend Bournemouth is much edgier.
Arriving last Saturday just before 6 p.m., I decided to make the best of the bright sunshine and still light evening by going straight out for a walk along the promenade. For a while, this was fine: families on the beach were just packing up, a few beach-hut owners were still relaxing in their doorways in deck chairs. Then, suddenly, all of these people had gone and I realised that there was no-one in sight except for perhaps twenty skateboarders, all young men, who had suddenly appeared and were performing expert manoeuvres all along the prom. I probably read too many crime reports in the newspapers, but the thought struck me forcibly that if one of them were to swoop down on me and snatch my handbag and then either sail away or pass it on to one of his friends, I’d have no chance of getting it back. I beat a hasty retreat to the hotel. (Apologies to all honest skateboarders everywhere for this shocking stereotyping!)
This hotel had been booked at the last minute, when I realised that Sunday travel would be impossible. It was all I could get and not of the standard of the conference hotel, to which I moved at the end of the weekend. It turned out to be the sister hotel of the hotel in Torquay on which Fawlty Towers was based. I have also stayed in the latter, and I can say only that both hotels live up to their reputation. The bucket in the corridor, to catch drips from the ceiling (someone had probably let their bath overflow) was dispiriting; the room itself was tiny – I could lie in bed and touch both walls with my elbows. (I smiled at the child’s Z-bed in the corridor: any parents who could get their offspring as well as themselves into such a room must have been contortionists!)
My colleagues were arriving very late, so I ate dinner alone, an uncanny backward time travel to the first restaurant meals that I experienced as an adolescent. The set menu was filled with culinary clichés: prawn cocktail, toasted grapefruit, melon boat, gammon and pineapple, coronation chicken, apple pie and baked Alaska. The couples dining seemed to have passed through some invisible looking-glass from the 1970s. The dining-room was vast: half a football pitch away, a very large group (the waiter called them ‘the tour’ – I think he meant ‘coach party’) erupted into song at intervals. They sang ‘Happy birthday to you’, ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow’, and, for good measure, ‘You’ll never walk alone’. The dining couples stolidly ignored them, the men sipping beer with their food, the women drinking coke.
Outside in the foyer, a group of very young women, obviously members of a hen-party, were about to embark upon a night on the town. They were brightly and uniformly dressed in what appeared to be clinging T-shirt dresses (shorter even than ‘pelmet’ skirts). The bride was instantly recognisable, because she was wearing a veil anchored by a crown of artificial flowers. Two of the other girls were carrying the lower half (i.e., the waist, hips and legs) of a shop-window mannequin, its modesty preserved by the addition of a pair of scarlet lace knickers. They all thought that this was hilariously funny and burst into incontrollable giggles as they carried it out through the door. By chance I saw them returning to the hotel some hours later, by which time the legs seemed to have been mislaid, if you’ll forgive the pun.
I retired to my room to read until my colleagues arrived. When they came, they suggested that we met for a drink, but by this time ‘the tour’ had filled the hotel bar. They were still singing traditional crowd songs, while heavy metal music pounded in the background. We decided to escape to the bar of the hotel next door. The music there was, if not understated, more schmaltzy, and our fellow drinkers consisted mainly of the members of a fairly decorous wedding party. The mother of the bride, dressed head to toe in leopardskin-printed chiffon, was a little the worse for wear. She was semi-recumbent upon a banquette, her eyes closed, her killer stilettoes kicked off. We paid through the nose for cocktails and managed to have a civilised conversation (in the sense that we could hear each other speak) before deciding to return to our own hotel, hoping that it would not be too noisy to get a decent night’s sleep.
Outside it was bitterly cold and very dark. A pergola had been erected between the two hotels, and something was glowing red inside it. Coming nearer, I saw that the bride and groom were sitting there, she still wearing her sleeveless, strapless dress with not even a wrap to keep her warm. Each was smoking a cigarette.
On Sunday, I moved to the conference hotel and the Bournemouth that I have always known sprang back into place again. What does all of this have to do with crime fiction? I’m not sure, but I think there may be the seed of a plot forming in the back of my mind. A silent killer moving between hotels, perhaps, inhabiting two worlds.
Edgy place, Bournemouth…