It was years since I had last been in Paris, and I had no recollection of ever having stayed in the hotel where I was to spend the next three nights. But the clerk at the reception desk greeted me as though I were a regular. He seemed to know me though I was almost certain I didn't know him. Could he be confusing me with someone else? 'I've put you in the usual room,' he said, handing me a key with the number 33 on it. 'I hope you'll find everything to your satisfaction.' Confused by his assumption that I would know the room he meant, I failed to ask directions and it took me a while to locate it. I unlocked the door and found myself in an exact replica of a room in a cheap hotel I had stayed in more than twenty years before. I remembered quite clearly the faded rose-patterned wallpaper, the ornate iron bedframe, the bolsters. It was a room where I spent three days with a woman I was having an affair with, an affair which nearly destroyed my marriage. While I stood there recalling that difficult period of my life the phone on the bedside table started to ring. I picked up the heavy, black handset. It was the receptionist calling. 'I forgot to mention that madame rang earlier,' he said. 'She asked me to let you know that she will be here in an hour.'
As soon as the coast was clear we began writing up our notes. In the pitch dark this was harder than I had expected, and in order not to overwrite what I had already jotted down I found I was having to leave a generous amount of space between lines, with the result that I was only able to get a few dozen words on each page. Despite my best efforts I was rapidly running out of paper. N had fared no better and was already on her last sheet. What were we to do? I decided to risk switching on a small torch which I had brought with me for just such an emergency, first wrapping it carefully in my handkerchief so as to diffuse the brightness. N looked nervous. 'What will HQ say?' she asked. I told her I had no intention of reporting this, and that if she didn't mention it no one would ever know. Could I trust her not to talk? She had always been a stickler for procedure, and I wasn't sure. Most of my notes, I could see, were incomprehensible. N's were equally illegible.
After my wife left me I developed an obsession with visiting antique shops. These were not shops selling pieces of genuine value, which I could not have afforded, but places stuffed with bric-a-brac, the everyday possessions of people who had downsized in their later years, or who had died, rooms filled with the accumulated ephemera of numerous house clearances. I was convinced that there were bargains to be found, and even perhaps some rare object worth a small fortune buried under all that junk, just waiting to be discovered. I had no interest in getting rich, only in the hunt, the satisfaction of outwitting an inattentive trader, the fulfilment of some primitive hunter-gatherer instinct perhaps. After a while the piles of old crockery, worthless paintings and china ornaments, the trashy holiday souvenirs, and the shelves of books by long-forgotten authors began to weigh on me and the compulsiveness of my obsession thankfully started to fade. I found nothing of any great monetary value, but I did acquire a stuffed badger, in perfect condition though minus her glass case, who has since become my constant companion. I call her Alice. She is next to me now, peering down at this page as I write.
Simon Collings lives in Oxford, UK, and has published poems, stories and critical essays in a range of journals including Fortnightly Review, Stride, Journal of Poetics Research, Tears in the Fence, Ink Sweat and Tears, Lighthouse and PN Review. He has published two poetry chapbooks: Out West, Albion Beatnik (2017), and Stella Unframed, Red Ceilings Press (2018).