Free State town, dead-end world

You’ve got heart of glass or a heart of stone, either way you can’t wait to go home

I had breakfasted with a clergyman in George, and arrived here just after dark. The Free State town’s roads were empty, thanks to the truck strike. It was drizzling.

My chosen hostelry was poetically misnamed after a rambling, bougainvillaea-clad Spanish villa. The giant concrete edifice loomed above an Engen garage, off a potholed roundabout. A demented mesh of cement masked the windows and forbade the murky street-lamp half-light from permeating the building.

Reception was down a dark grey corridor along which studded dusty pillars were wound with purple polyester netted scarves. A poodle-haired Granny greeted me through a speaking-hole in her cage. Behind her, a wooden grid of post-boxes was stuffed with keys and unpaid bills.

“Chrrrrristopherrrrrr?”

I nodded in Afrikaans and filled in a card. There were no computers. She handed me a key fob, a receipt, an aircon control and a TV remote; I lugged my bags to the clunky lift, which let out loud explosions on its lurching ascent towards the third floor.

Nothing had changed here since the Nats lost power, I thought. The shampooed receptionist was probably still unaware that they had and, from the many pigeonholed envelopes, there might even be some dead clients in the rooms dating back, undiscovered, to that era.

The bedroom’s swirly curtains were adorned with mauve plastic beads like the headdresses of Indian dancers and tied up with red, brown and russet cord.

On the plywood table stood a trimphone and tea tray with a brown shiny mat. The kettle had to be moved to the floor in order to boil water. Once the aircon and TV had been unplugged.

The bedhead was cushioned with studded white plastic. The furnishings were fablon-covered chipboard. Half the cupboard was padlocked and marked DANGER WATER PIPES PASOP WATER PYPE HOLOKOMELA POMPO YA METSI.

A television was firmly enclosed behind an iron grille and offered three blizzarded Channels.

There were no windows. A glass door led out onto a viewless balcony too small even to stand on and enclosed by a wall perforated with clay pipes through which a light breeze was squeezing itself.

There were four wastebins in the bedroom and two in the bathroom, alongside a vast cast-iron bath with solid taps squirting brown damp-smelling hot water. The lavatory seat sported a fluffy cover in green, brown and purple, crowned by a polyester-crafted rose with a button at its heart. High up, goose-curtained louvre windows opened out onto the corridor.

There was a toothmug, a tissue holder and one of those drying lines that wind up into a bell-push above the bath. Also above the bath, interestingly, at just above head-height, was a bottle-opener. Two facecloth-sized towels, embroidered with the hotel’s initials, hung on the back of the hollow door, which had a punch-mark and kick-hole in it.

With the enthusiasm of a depressed monk, I left my cell and headed for the windowless bar. The walls were obscurely decorated to show crenelated castle fortifications. There was painted bougainvillea. Two likely lads where chatting up a sun-starved barmaid, smoking up a storm and drinking beer by the neck.

I ordered a dinky of red and lit a small cigar. It seemed that the rules of the world didn’t apply in this concrete mausoleum. The Eagles’ apt Hotel California gave way to a selection of Bles Bridges.

Ons is moeg” said a tired waiter to a tired waitress and started to slam doors. I was also moeg. An SMS sent by the Georgian priest asked how far I’d reached.

I texted: I AM IN HELL.

He replied: GOD BLESS.

I slept well. The benediction must have clinched it. There was nothing else here that was sleep-inducing.