This weekend I’ve been staying in London. Room 458 of the Strand Palace Hotel, to be precise. It wasn’t really palatial but it was shiny with marble floors. As soon as I walked into the bedroom I wondered what the walls had seen. I always do, when I stay in a hotel. Probably like you.
Room 458 became my home for a few days. I was sad to leave, knowing the next person would move in and mess it up as I had. And I got thinking about the attachment I feel to places and why I find it hard to move on or let things go. I’m a hoarder; I keep anything that holds even the weakest link to sentimental value. Old theatre tickets, fairground stubs, letters from boyfriends in junior school – I keep them all. Not to pore over; I rarely look at them. But just knowing they’re there is enough.
I’m sure it must be linked to our holidays on the Isle of Wight. Going to the same hotel in the same town on the same island year after year must leave some sort of imprint on you. A sense of place and connection. Not only did we stay in the same hotel but we requested the same rooms too. Ours was Room 17 – mine and Nana’s. It was a medium-sized room, nothing special really. Two modest beds separated by a fake walnut bedside table, a plastic wardrobe with wood effect, and a small bathroom with a little pink bath and Ajax in the corner for cleaning.
The window overlooked the pool. Nana would lean out every evening and shout me up to get dressed for dinner. I never got out on the first shout, or the second. Rarely even the third. I squeezed out every last second I could, bombing and doing handstands in the freezing water, my skin tingly and tight from days of sunshine.
I never imagined anyone else in Room 17. In my mind it was preserved for our visit each summer, locked up until we returned with our suitcases and swimsuits. That room saw me grow from a bouncing baby with a penchant for eating sand and ring pulls, to a spotty fifteen-year-old with hang-ups, insecurities and an attitude. I imagine those walls, watching me develop in two-week snapshots each year.
Those walls watched Nana change too. They saw her losing her mind and gathering frustration as she started to find things more difficult. Small things. Every year she’d make our fancy dress outfits. She’d kneel on the carpet for hours, giving up evenings of her holidays to make us costumes for the hotel competition. She could whip up anything out of bits and bobs from the pound shop. But as the years passed she started to slow down. She’d hold pins in her mouth, about to put together a tunic for a frog or a dress for a princess, and suddenly she’d look up, complete confusion crossing her face, followed by fear, followed by a dawning of what she was doing. And then she’d carry on.
When I look back to our days in Room 17, I see her brown and healthy in handmade suits she’d crafted from fabric bought especially for our Isle of Wight trips. I see her stretched out in the bath in a showercap to protect her perm, or snoring in bed, or reading a paperback by the bedside light as I tried to sleep. We had a few arguments too, as I got older and started to experiment with my own style. She could never quite get over my move from pretty summer outfits to black dresses and Dr Martens – the combination almost killed her, I think.
When I go back to the Isle of Wight in February for my Making Tracks trip, I have requested Room 17. The woman at the hotel didn’t understand. She tried hard to persuade me to take another room – one with a sea view and more space. I explained that it had to be Room 17. With the view of the pool and the little pink bath and the memories pressed into the ceiling and floorboards.
I wonder if the walls will recognise me.
Find out more about my Making Tracks project – Finding Nana.