Thursday, July 21, 2011

making Hitchcock proud.

A few days ago, for reasons I don’t even want to begin to have to explain, I had to take a trip down to Jinan. I had no idea where I was going to stay for the night and when I found a place nearby where I had to do things, I accepted out of sheer exhaustion. Why am I telling you this strangely vague story that is so far kind of about nothing?

Because of a bathroom. And not just any bathroom. This was the worst bathroom I have ever seen, let alone been in, in my entire life. Out of all the countries I’ve been to. Out of all the hostels and dorms I’ve stayed in. Out of all of the remote places and distant lands I’ve seen… This was the worst toilet/shower facility to have ever scarred me.

My bedroom door opened into a dimly lit corridor with thick, stained carpet and several different bad smells. The doorknob was rattling loosely and when I locked it I had no faith that my belongings inside were safe. I looked to the left down the hallway and saw walls of doors for about a hundred meters. There was a single source of light from that far end which appeared so bright but was so dull by the time it reached me. There were no shadows because there were no shapes. Just a long, narrow, empty hallway. I turned around to the right of me and mentally adjusted to my intended route. The carpeted hallway continued on for a while, and then turned to tiles. At this transition there was another single, dull light. That light was so dull, and that tiled hall so long, that the energy of the light ran out before my eyes could identify the end of the hallway. And where was the bathroom? The bathroom was at the end of the hallway. When and where did that hallway end? I did not have a clue.

Now I was in that classic moment of inner conflict. In the movies, this is that scene when the girl is home alone at night and ‘hears something on the porch’, and everyone sits in the theatre and says ‘don’t go onto the porch! Don’t leave the house!’ So then the girl goes outside and dies.

I was standing in that smelly, carpeted, silent, dim hallway. Was this actually that point in the movie? Nah, couldn’t be. Surely. That shit doesn’t actually happen. Right? Well, yeah I guess it does sometimes, actually. Then it occurred to me that I really needed to do a wee. Damn the way adrenalin works in the body! I swear I didn’t need to pee before I started thinking about horror movies and my heart beat rose by 60 beats per minute! Now what do I do!? I need to pee! A shower is optional in this kind of situation – but a pee? A pee is not optional in any situation…

“Shit.” I sigh and push my back off the wall, and I start walking. It was still totally silent until I reached the point where the carpet frayed off into the mouldy and rusty tiles. (I didn’t even know that tiles could rust, and I still don’t think they can, but I swear they were rusty.) Now my footsteps echoed loudly down the hallway in front of me, and reverberated down the hallway behind me, so that it sounded as if more than one person was there. I stopped walking and turned around quickly. Nothing. And silence. Silence apart from my heartbeat, which was loud and damn clear in my ears. Now I was almost angry at how afraid I was. The bright lamp at the end of the hall had seared onto my eyes, and when I turned back to the dark hall in front of me I was blind. I could see nothing, and before my eyes had adjusted, my imagination took the liberty of filling the space in front of me with a ghastly moving shape of shadow. I froze, but must have blinked, because the shape was gone in a moment, replaced with a slowly forming image of the hallway. That damn hallway. I had walked just far enough now, so that when I regained my night-time vision eyes, I could see the far wall. It was a long way away. Everything was still totally silent.

I began walking forward after what seemed like a long wait – not because I thought it was a good idea, but because I could not bring myself to turn my back to the darkness again. Once more, my steps made the noises of someone following me, and I treaded in an uneven pattern just to be sure the noises were my own. As I grew nearer to the end, though, I began to hear a noise. It was low, and came in regular drones then pauses, and grew so incredibly loud as I drew nearer to the end, that the pauses made the old silence seem even quieter. Two seconds on. Two seconds off. Almost like an angry, elongated heartbeat. A single tone, which in those two seconds, began soft, would then crescendo, and then fall completely silent. It was far too late to turn back now. I was ten steps from the end of the hall, and one foot fell in front of the other because I could not command my body to do anything else. It was so dark.

Finally, a meter ahead, I saw the wall give way to a double-door sized entry. The noise was coming from within, and the tiles on the floor around me had grown wet and slippery. I hugged the hallway wall on the right hand side and slashed my hand wildly around it’s surface, until I hit a familiar shape of a square of hard plastic and flicked the light switch on. In a two second-of-silence moment, I heard the familiar buzz of fluorescent lights stirring themselves into action. The remaining section of hallway in front of me exploded into clarity and the mass of shallow puddles came alive into mirrors, so that from where I was standing, I could see into the space where the hallway opened up into. But just as quickly as the light came on, it disappeared again, and I was felled into darkness without sight. I didn’t move. The loud noise sounded in my ears and I couldn’t hear anything else. Then, just as silence fell, the lights flashed on again! I checked the puddles, nothing was moving anywhere. I strained my ears, total silence. Then the noise sounded again, and again the light disappeared, and again I froze. I was stuck.

About ten seconds went by, without about five intervals of sensory-assaulting dramatic shifts in surrounding. I decided to risk it, and in the next patch of darkness and noise, I readied myself to move. As soon as the light came on again, I moved into the space and found the next light switch and turned it on, just in time for the blinking fluorescent light to disappear. Now I was in intervals of low light and bright light, which was immensely comforting, and that noise? A washing machine in the corner of a small adjoined room. A fucking washing machine. Doing its rounds.

I surveyed this new situation, and instead of feeling better about light, and the identification of the elephant heartbeat, my stomach only sank lower. The room I was in was lined on either side with massive cracked, rusty mirrors, in front of industrial-sized ceramic sinks with gaping, uncovered drains and sharp broken taps. The entire floor was wet with bits of hair in spots and filthy rags in others. On the far wall a window sat open and seemed to suck the light out of the room. It was facing a solid brick wall. Two filthy mops sat in one corner, and the whole place stank of mould. From this main area, two doors opened into other smaller spaces. One door was open, and the washing machine sat in darkness, the fast turning spinner constantly catching my eye as the only foreign source of movement for the last ten minutes. The room was in an ‘L’ shape though, so I couldn’t see the rest of it. And it was pitch black. The other door was closed, and a look at the floor and the increase in the depth of the water told me it was the showers. Great. Another closed doorway with complete darkness beyond it, which to get into, I have to turn my back towards this fucked-up-levels-of-freaky room and the other laundry room which I have no idea what is in.

‘You know what? What the hell.’ I just thought. I was so damn tired I just stepped into that fat puddle and kicked that damn door open and pretty much punched the next light switch on. What a wonderful moment of brazen behaviour! And then that bravery disappeared as yet another horrific room materialised in front of me. Three stalls with rotting wooden doors. A bare light bulb hanging by a wire from the ceiling. Broken tiles poking up from the floor, jagged edges rising higher than the layer of water flooded over the entire area. The first thing on the agenda in this kind of situation is obviously to check the stalls, but as I move forward the door I came in through swings just behind me, hitting the frame with a bang. I pretty much feinted. I was past the point of scared. My heart could not have been beating any faster, and my mind was creating all the worst kinds of possibilities these stalls could be filled with.

I pushed the first one open. Nothing. A mouldy wooden crate to stand on and more rusty taps. I splashed through the puddles and pushed the second door open. Nothing. Old cakes of soap littered the floor, but I found it comforting to think that people had actually been here. The third stall now… In the movies the scary thing is always in the last stall. Always. I paused with my hand in the air, breathed in and pushed the door open. Nothing. Thank god. Now comes the hard part.

I stepped out of my shoes and into that third stall, draping my towel and pyjamas over the door, and then went to lock it. No lock. Great. I grabbed my stuff again and slipped back into my shoes and tried the next stall. Again, no lock. Holy shit. Third time lucky? Ha. Ha. No. No. Nononononooooooo. None of the stalls have locks. No locks at all. The big door didn’t lock, and from there the double doors stayed open straight into the hallway.

No locks at all. What do I do now? What else could I do. I just went and had a shower anyway. I was that tired. It was almost inviting the scary monster from the horror movie to come and eat me. It was like, if there was a checklist, for every element of a frightening situation to be fulfilled, and then the lead character still insists on going out on to that porch, or getting into that shower, then by Darwin’s natural selection theory, they deserve to die out of sheer stupidity. You know how I made it worse? I washed my hair. And one other thing? The shower didn’t have any showerhead fixture, so the water was pouring out in one pig stream from a sawn-off, rusty pipe edge. Ok, so one last thing. The water was cold. No hot water at all. Not even lukewarm. Freezing cold.

When I think about it now, I can’t believe I did it. I can’t believe I was so tired that exhaustion trumped survival instincts. That every time the situation got worse, I just kept going further. I’m almost embarrassed about how stupid I was, but the whole thing was almost too stereotypical to have been realistic. It could have been a nightmare, it was that bad. All of the elements coming together. Hitchcock would have been proud.

Needless to say, I rinsed my hair and dried off and got the hell out of there. The walk back down the hallway was uneventful. I figured that if I was going to die, it would have been in the shower, so I wasn’t that scared any more. The carpet was still smelly, and the doorknob still lacking integrity, but my room was dry and looked like a classic cheap roadside motel. When I woke up the next morning, the only evidence that the whole saga wasn’t a nightmare was that my hair was still wet.

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