When they reached the hotel room, both of them had the urge to flop down upon that queen size bed and spread out like starfish. But neither of them did, and neither quite knew why, but it may have been something to do with not wanting to seem silly in front of the other. Daniel set the suitcase down and said, “Well, this is nice,” and went to inspect the bathroom. Susan opened up the suitcase, opened up the wardrobe and drawers, and began finding new homes for all their clothes and travel accessories.
Daniel pulled open the curtains, looked out of the window. “Come here, Susie,” he said, and Susan obliged, and they stood there, looking down upon the streets of Gdansk, so close they could be nearly touching. “We’ll get a nice view, at any rate,” said Daniel. “Once the rain stops.”
This was their anniversary present, and now they were here both of them made up their minds to enjoy it. George had given it to them. George had said he wanted to give them something special for their thirtieth. He was always taking foreign holidays with his wife, and when they came to visit every other month or so George was always full of the exciting places they had been, Paris, Barcelona, Rome, and neither Susan nor Daniel quite knew where he got it from, when he’d been a child they’d never taken him anywhere more exotic than Skegness. He had phoned them up, wished them happy anniversary, told them he was going to treat them to three nights in Gdansk; he’d just been, it was lovely, and not too overrun with tourists yet, and it was high time the two of the got out and did something, they weren’t getting any younger! They could take the holiday any time they wanted, just let him know, he’d arrange everything. And Christmas had come and then Susan’s birthday had come and then Daniel’s, and George had phoned up and said, aren’t you going to take that holiday soon, it’s nearly been a year since I offered it to you! And Susan and Daniel decided they had better get their thirtieth anniversary present out of the way quickly before they got given a thirty-first.
George had booked the flights, he’d found them a hotel he’d heard recommended, he even arranged taxis to and from the airport. The only thing he couldn’t do for them was go instead. The flight was quite comfortable, really, and Susan didn’t need the air sickness bag as she’d feared. Gdansk looked nice out of the cab window, big and old-fashioned and stony, and everywhere there were signs in foreign lettering.
They had dinner in the hotel. It was too wet to go out. Afterwards Daniel sat on the bed and read through the little guide book he’d bought at the airport, frowning at it seriously as if it were a Bible whose hidden meanings he had to interpret. “It all sounds nice,” he said. “There’s an Amber Museum, and a museum celebrating solidarity. And Soport Pier is the largest wooden pier in the whole of Europe.”
Susan found a piece of white card on the dresser by the bed. She picked it up and looked at it. She showed it to Daniel.
“Pillow menu,” he read.
“What’s a pillow menu?” asked Susan.
“I suppose,” said Daniel, and laughed, “it’s a menu for pillows. Well, I never!”
This is what the Pillow Menu said:
We understand everyone has their own personal pillow preference.
If you would prefer a different type of pillow than is on your bed please refer to the menu overleaf. To make your request, at any time of the day or night, please phone reception on extension 0.
Daniel said he had never really thought to have a personal pillow preference, in spite of what the card so politely asserted. Susan agreed. “Refer overleaf,” she said, and Daniel did.
Soft & Slim Pillow!
A soft and slim pillow offering a slight incline.
Feather / Duck Down Pillow!
A feather and duck down pillow to provide dreamy soft support.
An extremely supportive firm pillow.
A large square pillow offering excellent back support for reading in bed.
“Well, I never!” chuckled Daniel again.
“What will they think of next?” Susan agreed.
Daniel felt at the pillows that were on the bed. They felt very efficient, and very ordinary. “Let’s do it,” he said.
“Oh, Daniel,” said Susan. “We can’t. They’ll be having their tea.”
“Any time, day or night,” said Daniel. “Look. I think we should have special pillows. It’s our holiday. I think we can do whatever we like!”
He picked up the phone. Susan giggled – “Oh, you really mustn’t!” Daniel winked at her, rang down to reception.
“Hello?” he said. “My wife and I were looking at your, uh, menu. For pillows. Is it really true that…? Well. Well, I think we’d like some pillows, yes, if it isn’t too much trouble. I don’t know.” He held the receiver to his chest. “Susan, what pillow would you like?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Pillow number one?”
“My wife would like pillow number one. And I think I will go for pillow number two. Yes. …Oh, can you? Really?” He held the receiver to his chest again. “He says we can have all four pillows, if we want.”
“Don’t be silly!” she said. “What would we be wanting with four pillows?” But she was laughing.
“Well, yes,” said Daniel, into the phone. “Yes. Go on then. Let’s, let’s go for all four, um. If you’re sure that’s all right. In your own time. Don’t let us spoil your tea. Thank you.”
He put the phone down, and Susan very gently hit his arm with one of the pillows they already had.
“What?” said Daniel, and grinned.
“Daniel Evans,” she said. “You really are the limit!”
And presently there was a knock on the door. “Room service!” called a young woman’s voice, kind and polite. “That was quick,” said Daniel, and Susan echoed him, “that was quick,” and Susan got up to answer the door. There stood a maid with thick black hair and dark brown eyes and the sweetest of smiles, and she was laden down with pillows.
“Oh, you poor thing!” said Susan. “Let me help you with that,” said Daniel.
“Is no need,” the maid continued to smile. She put the pillows down on to the bed. Daniel took out some euros, offered them to her, and she waved the money away. Her name badge was now visible – her name was Lura.
“Thank you, Lura,” said Susan.
“Yes, thank you, Lura,” said Daniel.
Lura said, “Thank you!” too, though there was really no need, and her pretty smile somehow contrived to get prettier still, and she all but bobbed a curtsey, and she left.
The couple turned to their new pillows. “Which do you think is which?” said Susan, because really, they all looked exactly the same, just like pillows. Daniel gave them each a squeeze. “I think this is number three,” he said, “this one feels a bit firmer.”
Daniel selected pillow three, and Susan pillow two. They got into their pyjamas. Daniel said, “Maybe we’ll do that amber museum tomorrow, and I wouldn’t mind a look at that pier.” Susan turned off the light. Susan liked the feel of her pillow. It was very soft, it was as if her cheek was gliding down on it, and she thought it had the faint whiff of lavender.
“Good night,” she said.
“Good night,” said Daniel.
“I’m glad we came,” she said.
For a while she heard nothing but the raindrops against the window, and her husband’s breathing, and both were soothing.
He said, “I love you.”
“I love you too,” she said.
It wasn’t something either said very often, and that was because they didn’t really need to. But it was nice to hear, all the same. There in the darkness, in a foreign land, with something so soft against her cheek, and lavender in the air.
She waited to see if he’d say anything else, but he didn’t, and that was perfectly all right. She heard he was asleep, and then, very soon afterwards, she was asleep too.
It was still raining the next morning when Susan woke up. She didn’t mind. She watched the raindrops spatter upon the windowpanes, and she thought, they’re Polish raindrops, and that made them rather exotic. The pillow beneath her head was still so inviting, and she felt she could very easily just drift off back to sleep.
“Good morning,” said Daniel. He’d woken up too. She hadn’t realised.
“Did you sleep well?”
He chuckled. “With my special pillow? I did!”
They both lay in bed for another half hour, they both watched the rain. Susan knew that Daniel was close enough that she could reach out and touch him, but she was so snug as she was, she didn’t want any part of her body to traverse the cold untouched sheets between them.
“We should get up,” she said, at last.
“There’s nowhere to go,” Daniel pointed out. “We could just stay here.”
“No, we should get up.”
So they did. Daniel shaved, and once he was out of the bathroom, Susan had a shower.
Susan was drying her hair when there was a knock at the door. “I come later?” Lura said.
“No, no,” said Daniel. “We’re just going out.”
Lura pointed at the window, and at the wet, and gave an apologetic smile. Daniel smiled back, shrugged. Susan said, “Thank you for last night’s pillows,” and Lura nodded, said they were welcome.
Daniel and Susan went down to the hotel lobby. Susan took some knitting, Daniel took his guide book. They found a couple of comfy armchairs, and settled down to enjoy themselves. Daniel occasionally would tell Susan some interesting bits of historical information about places it was too wet to see, and Susan would shake her head in wonder. He pointed out some pictures of the Amber Museum. “That’s very nice,” he said.
They had lunch at the hotel. When the rain hadn’t eased off by evening, they had dinner there too.
They went back to their room, and found that Lura had cleaned it very well, and it had the same sort of pristine perfection they’d found on arrival. It seemed to Susan that all trace of them had been erased, and she had to open the wardrobe to check their clothes were still hanging there, that they belonged.
They stood by the window, and watched lightning arc over the city. “Come here,” said Daniel, and he gave her a little hug, and something that was very nearly a kiss, he brushed the top of her head gently with his lips. “Never mind, old girl,” he said. “Not much of a holiday, but never mind.” And Susan said it didn’t matter, she was quite all right, and so she was.
As they were getting ready for bed, Daniel idly picked up the pillow menu from the dresser. He gave a little cry of surprise, and Susan stopped brushing her hair and looked around, none of the glittering delights Daniel had read about in the guide book of Gdansk had sparked so enthusiastic a response.
“There are new pillows!” he said. “Look!”
And there were.
The soft innards of leaves found in the deepest parts of the Bolivian rainforest, glazed with honey and tree sap.
Lovingly sculpted from whipped asses’ milk, to ensure a peaceful night’s sleep.
The Little Princeling!
Extract of cloud.
These special pillows didn’t come free. The prices were written clearly underneath. The Emperor and the Empress were twenty-five euros each, the Little Princeling went for a cool fifty.
Neither Daniel nor Susan spoke for a while. And then Daniel said, “Well, we are on holiday…”
And Susan said, “We’ve saved so much money not going to the Amber Museum.”
And Daniel was on the phone.
Only minutes later there was a knock at the door, and there was Lura, her smile just as pretty, and she carried a large silver platter. She removed the lid, and with tongs placed each pillow gently upon the bed. Pillows five and six looked no different from each other, or indeed from the pillows the couple had already enjoyed. The Little Princeling, though, was about the size of a bathroom flannel, and Lura took it from the platter with particular delicacy, as if afraid she would break it.
She waited patiently whilst Daniel fished in his pocket for a hundred euros. She tucked the notes down the front of her dress, bobbed a little curtsey, said good night, and was gone.
When Susan pressed her face upon the Empress, she could feel the milk lap about her cheeks, and it was warm, and she was Cleopatra, and this wasn’t the sort of milk she kept at home in the fridge, not the milk she’d waste on cornflakes, and it reminded her of the milk she’d enjoyed as a child, and the way her mother would warm it for as a treat, if it were cold outside or Susan felt poorly, and the way Susan had warmed it for little George, that had been such a long time ago, and it made her feel safe, she felt protected. And she thought her milk pillow was wet, a thick wet, but when she put her hand to her face it seemed dry, and softer than it had ever been.
When David laid upon the Emperor, he heard the beating of life within it, gently beating away, of something as old as the world and something that could never die, not really, not whilst there was still air and land and sea, still a planet for life to cling to – and he heard too the beating of his own heart, and the air passing through his lungs, and the blood gushing in his veins, and he realised it was the same thing, it was all exactly the same. And he wasn’t such a bad man. He wasn’t bad, after all.
And the Little Princeling was the best pillow, and all through the night they shared it, they passed it back and forth, like a spliff, and they had forgotten they had ever done that, so many years ago, before they were married, just the once, they had forgotten they had ever been so naughty and so young.
They kissed, and they hadn’t done that for so very long either.
They took off their pyjamas, and they’d seen each other naked, of course – but not as something to look at, to enjoy. They held each other. She’d wrap her arms around him, then they’d turn over, he’d be all over her. They wouldn’t do more than that, they’d kiss and spoon, but that was the pleasure of it, knowing it could go no further, that the anticipation was there, it was like before they were married, when they had the rest of their lives ahead of them. Susan felt soft and beautiful, and David proud and brave, and they were.
By the morning the rain had stopped, and sunlight streamed in through the window, and Gdansk lay outside fresh and dry for them. But they didn’t want Gdansk today. They stayed in bed.
At some point Lura knocked upon their door. “Room service,” she called, softly. They didn’t bother to reply, and she left.
They dozed the whole day, and when they woke at last it was dark outside. And they saw that the room had been cleaned. Lura had at some point tiptoed in and made up the bed around them. And they didn’t know whether they should be alarmed by that, but then Daniel laughed – “Well, I never!” – and it didn’t seem to matter.
By the bedside there was another pillow menu.
They read it.
It didn’t take long. It was very simple.
That was all.
This time it was Susan who made the phone call, and she didn’t worry that the staff might be having their tea, she wanted pillow eight brought to them right away.
Lura opened the door, and it was only then that it occurred to the couple that they were still naked, and they pulled the sheets over all their extremities. But Lura didn’t seem to mind. She smiled at them, and it was a maternal smile, it really was her prettiest smile of all. And she said, “Is good day?”, and they told her that it had been.
“Pillow eight,” she said.
And from the corridor she wheeled into the room a large chest – no, not merely a chest, this was a sarcophagus – surely there couldn’t be a mere pillow inside it, there had to be diamonds or gold or an ancient pharaoh at the very least – and Daniel looked at Susan, and saw that she was licking her lips, and he realised his mouth was dry with excitement and he was then licking his lips too.
“What sort of pillow,” Daniel asked, “have you got in there?”
Lura wagged her finger at them, but she wasn’t telling them off, it was all in play, and she laughed.
“Twenty thousand euros,” she said.
There was silence, a sort of dumbfounded silence. And then Susan and Daniel both spoke at once.
“We’ll take it,” said Susan.
“We can’t afford it,” said Daniel.
Susan stared at Daniel, and Daniel stared at Susan, and both seemed equally surprised by the other’s reaction.
Daniel turned back to Lura. “We can’t afford it,” he said again. “I’m sorry.”
And Lura smiled, as if this were the response she was used to, and it probably was. She shrugged, as if to say, never mind! As if to say, it is a lot of money! As if to say, your loss, you silly old people.
“Let’s talk about this,” said Susan. “Just for a second. Let’s talk about this.” She could have pointed out that they had the money, it was sitting doing nothing in their savings account, and what were they saving it for, they were never going to spend it, there was nothing they were ever going to do together that was so exciting or so intrepid that it was ever going to be used. They didn’t even go on holidays. Did they, they didn’t even go on holidays. They would die, they would just die, one after the other, it didn’t matter who went first, and it would get left to George, and George didn’t need it, George went on holidays already. Susan could have said, this is our chance. This can be for us, at last, after all these years, for us and for no one else.
She didn’t say any of that. She just gazed at Daniel, hoped he would understand. And perhaps he did. Probably, he did.
He looked down. “I’m sorry,” he said again, and it wasn’t clear whom he was talking to. And Lura wheeled the sarcophagus away, and the pillow that was locked within.
They weren’t angry with each other. But they slept apart that night. Even the Little Princeling was no help.
In the morning it was raining. Susan packed the suitcase. Daniel went down to reception and checked out. The desk clerk asked if Daniel had enjoyed his stay, and he said he had, thank you, very much. Daniel said, “And please pass on our thanks to Lura,” and the clerk frowned, then smiled, and said he would.
As they drove by taxi to the airport, Daniel was able to point out some of the buildings he’d read about in the guide book. They didn’t pass the Amber Museum or the pier.
Susan said, “I feel so old.”
Daniel said, “Well. We are old.”
Susan said, “I feel old inside.”
He bought them both sandwiches at the airport. They talked a little on the flight. They didn’t talk much in the car home.
And Daniel looked at his wife, and wished he knew what to say to put things right.
And Susan looked at her husband, and she knew that she loved him, and she was certain he loved her back. But she didn’t know that they had anything in common any more. And that was a shame.
They both wondered what the question mark pillow might have been.
They got home. There was a message on the answering machine from George. “I hope you guys had a good time! Did you see the Neptune Fountain? What did you make of the Neptune Fountain?” Daniel hadn’t even read about the Neptune Fountain, and now he took out his guide book, and stared at it in some confusion.
Susan took the suitcase up to the bedroom, unpacked what she had packed only a few hours before. She put away in wardrobes and cupboards clothes and travel accessories. Only when the job was done did she look at the bed she had shared with her husband almost every night for thirty-one years.
Daniel heard the urgency in Susan’s cry, and he thought maybe she was hurt, and that terrified him, and he realised in that instant he loved her with all his heart. And he dropped the guide book he would never bother opening again, and he ran upstairs to find her.
She was smiling. Thank God, she wasn’t hurt, she was smiling. She hugged on to him, she smiled, and her face lit up, and all the years simply fell away.
“Look,” she said.
There was their bed, cold, and harder than the one they had enjoyed in Gdansk. And there were their pillows, flat and ordinary. They’d left in a rush, Susan hadn’t straightened them properly, the pillows were still imprinted with the weight of their heads. And Susan and Daniel looked at one pillow, and then the other. And the imprint on both was the same. They looked like question marks. Exactly like question marks. As if the pillows were asking them something, and they couldn’t be sure what, and they would have to get into bed together to find out.