Hotel Dull, Food Indifferent: Dining With The deWinters

The Hotel Dull, Food Indifferent project is a weekly fiction series that, for legal purposes, charts various uncomfortable meals hosted by the nameless second wife – let’s call her Mrs. deSummer — of a wealthy Cornish landowner. Unrelatedly, here is a primer on the ‘transformative’ clause of the ‘fair use’ doctrine.

Chapter One: Into Money and Back Again

There is no breakfast-companion more tiresome than one who passed the night dreaming. Morning alone, out of all the sunlight hours, allows for the clearing-away of superfluities and the clarification of mind and body before the endless varied necessities of the day. The dream-sharer is as welcome and necessary at breakfast as vomit. Worse, too, for he is not only eager to share his residuum, but proud of its contents: See here and Now what do you think of that? We live again in an age of augurs and haruspices, and the breakfast table their offering-floor, jockeying to present whatever membranous protrusions and visceral eruptions troubled their sleep for public review. One of the thousand degradations of hotel living is the chambre d’hôte, that vicious communal habit that thrusts all covers under a single service, so anyone hoping for toast with their tea must risk a run-in with one of these fiends in human shape hoping to maul your solitude. They look like anyone. If dreams are the guardians of sleep, let us treat them as any other bodily function, whether it serves to disguise, repress, excise, obscure, heighten, catalog, clear, or compensate, and exclude them from polite conversation. Save such subjects for tradesmen and doctors. 

Polite conversation! – that careful sounding-out of a fellow-man’s privacy, of testing and complimenting the fences he has carefully built to keep his self apart from yours, that grand little cooperative gesture blasted off the field in Europe’s last great rush to replace equality with exhibition. Who are our most famous dreamers? William’s vision of Piers Plowman — Nemo in Slumberland — St. Joseph — little Dorothy in Oz, littler Alice underground. Farmers in need of chiding into church attendance, overfed children, cuckolds and exiles, and indifferently-brought-up girls dream. If dreams are anything more than disorders resultant of an incontinent appetite – and I am not at all convinced that they are – let us treat the effluvium of the brain as we do all incontinence, and wipe these crumbs of cheese, these blots of mustard, these fragments of last night’s underdone potato from this morning’s breakfast-table. Last night I did dream, but what of it? We are all caudled in sleep. I did dream of the house, and I dreamed I was prevented from entering it, just as I had been the last time. 

This morning the chambre d’hôte offers sweet rolls and coffee, tea or chocolate, shredded wheat and stewed rhubarb, tomato juice, Prune-Nip, jam or marmalade, and three different newspapers. There is the promise of an egg if one can shout down a waiter in between his cigarette breaks, but no more than a promise. It is the sort of hotel that attempts to chisel as much of England as possible into its two miles square of French soil, which is to say that it combines all the conveniences of the latter with all the complaisance of the former. Gracious living is replaced with amenities, the family retainer with a dinner-steward, with hotel stationery available to anyone sufficient for a bill-of-fare. 

There is nothing extraordinary about finding oneself unable to enter a house within a dream. All dreamers are impotent, all desires either thwarted outright or diffused into a smear of confusion and homogeneity. In waking life M_______ belonged to us, and we to it, without the question of desire or fulfillment ever entering into things. I married into M_______, and nothing short of death or unmarriage can ever take me out of it. I believe there was a padlock on the gate within the dream. The lodge keeper had need of it from time to time, although there was no sign of him this time, even from the little lattice windows round the door. I found myself on the family side of the drive nonetheless, though I cannot now recall how or even whether I passed beyond the gate. It happened without force or endeavor, as so often happens in dreams, where neither will nor effort seem necessary. Perhaps they are unwelcome to dreamers. What then? The drive unwound, and I with it, exactly as it would have otherwise, and naturally it looked like what it was; unpeopled. If I was surprised to see it, this was not because I had forgotten or failed to expect it, merely that I could not have anticipated the pace of Nature’s handiwork in our absence. It had required the full weight of Max’s family in successive generations to graft a garden there. I cannot account for any stewardship but my own, could not have guessed how quickly the woods rolled back over it. I only knew the garden. The woods were mostly beech and elm in our day, but now they were joined by horse-chestnut, dripping with caterpillar moths, common alder, and hawthorne, bristling and tight as sardines. The gravel on the drive was gone, as were the white flagstones and anything else that might have served to guide or welcome guests; hospitality left the grounds with her hosts. Everything was ugly, common, overgrown, unmarked by guiding hand or cultured eye, and everywhere the ground was pockmarked with rotten hydrangea flowers. The gardener must have been in the middle of deadheading when we left. 

This is the peril I warned you against, of being drawn into the useless riot of detail in one’s own dreams. Better not to dream at all, but one can at least resolve not to drag one’s unfinished dreams into the following day any more than one would wear last night’s pyjamas down to dinner. I looked around at the house, which was not as I remembered it. How could it have been? When did a dream ever successfully mimic a memory? The lawns spilled down to the sea, still; the facade was interrupted by a labyrinth of hedge and newly-minted wilderness. The situation of the house remained good, as it ever had. Max’s ancestors had judged nicely, had chosen both location and quarter before striking home. His inheritance remains intact, merely grown over. This is a fallow period only, a lying-in. Nettles now choked the garden-path in my dream, but nettles burn as readily as houses. At this moment of resolution I knew myself to be dreaming, knew that I would wake shortly to a day without atmosphere – a lack of atmosphere we have come to depend on, Max and I, as it is preferable to substitution – having gained nothing from the dream, nor anything now in the retelling of it. 

Then I awoke. The day lay before us both. I opened the bedroom door to see a line already forming for the bathroom at the end of the hall. Presently I joined it.

[Richard Tennant Cooper]