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Posted on May 3rd, 2009
The Great Railway

(Soundtrack: Jeffrey Lewis “’Em Are I”)
I had to go to Manchester for work. It was annoying because I had to be at the offices for 8.30 am on Tuesday morning, so I decided to go up on Monday night and stay over.
I have been to Manchester before, years ago for work, and I had stayed in a huge, old, grand hotel which I had really liked. I was sure it was called The Great Railway, but when I looked online it wasn’t listed. I supposed it had closed, which was a shame. It was like stepping back in time there: red velvet and gold fittings everywhere, a massive foyer with the biggest chandelier hanging high above. The staircase was amazing – really wide stairs like something out of an old Hollywood movie, spiraling up around the chandelier. If you climbed to the top floor and looked down, you could see the chandelier hanging way below. You would feel dizzy looking down within the staircase, but also shocked just how grand and sumptious it all was. It was slightly crumbling too, increasing the air of it being from another age.
Assuming it had closed, I booked into a modern chain hotel near the station. I got there around 6.30, checked in, and headed straight out towards Chinatown. I remembered where The Great Railway hotel was, so I decided to go that way, just out of curiosity. There it was, just as I remembered it. It was closed, the main doors padlocked, and some of the windows boarded up, the higher ones with smashed gaping glass. Its huge red-brick structure still looked imposing.
The walls at ground level were plastered with posters for gigs and clubs. I stood looking at what was on, wondering if I could spot anything for that night. The only one was “Hodgsons’s Authentic Victorian Music Hall, 7.30 every Monday night at The Variety Theatre, Relive the good old days!” After initially dismissing the idea, I decided on impulse to go. I knew where the theatre was, just ten minutes walk away, and it sounded interesting at least… I could always leave if it was awful.
So I walked round there and took my seat just as the lights were dimned and it turned 7.30. I sat towards the back as I have a fear of being “volunteered” for things like this. The theatre was beautiful inside; small, but full of atmosphere, and well worth seeing, even if the show turned out to be no good. It was a third full – maybe thirty people altogether, of which about ten had come along in Victorian fancy dress.
The show started with a song from a troupe of women in colourful frocks and then continued with the cheeky M.C. doing his best to get the audience going, followed by a succession of magicians, ventriloquists and boardy songs.
The audience loved it, joining in and clapping along with the songs, and laughing at the weakest jokes. I noticed one gentleman though, who laughed loudly, but at different times to everyone else. He would guffaw suddenly when there hadn’t been a joke, or halfway through a story. His laugh was strange: loud, hollow, and somehow seemed to have pain in it.
It struck me as odd. What was it that particularly tickled him? Was he taking the mick? Were the comments he responded to particularly relevant to his life? Or was he laughing at something else entirely? Did he always laugh like that? I thought it odd, but somehow fascinating – he captured my attention more than what was going on onstage.
It seemed strange, yet I kind of longed to be unselfconscious enough to laugh like that. When was it that I had last laughed out loud like that? I remember laughing a lot as i boy, but recently?
Back onstage, the M.C. was explaining that there was to be a fifteen minute interval. The audience applauded loudly then started to stand up. I watched the laughing gentleman, and he stood, put on a dark overcoat, picked up a black, silver-tipped cane, and instead of heading down the aisle to the door with the rest of the crowd, he went alone out of a door at the side marked “Exit”.
I wasn’t that bothered if I missed the second half of the show. In fact, I had no real plan for the evening, except to get dinner in Chinatown at some point. So I picked up my jacket, slipped through the people shuffling towards the bar, and followed him through the same exit.
The door opened onto the street – a side-alley. It was now dark. To the left, at the end of the alley, I just saw the man disappearing round the corner. I let the door slam behind me and hurried after him. For some reason I wanted to follow him, maybe find out something about him, at least get a proper look at him.
I found myself on a street I didn’t know behind the theatre. I could see the man walking briskly in front, so, walking close to the walls, I followed him through the almost gothic red-brick streets of Manchester.
It was the first time I had ever followed anyone. I felt like characters from hundreds of old films, and started thinking about how I would react if he spotted me, or turned, or glanced around. But he didn’t and I had still not seen his face.
I now recognised the street. In fact, we were retracing the steps I had taken earlier to get to the theatre.
A few minutes later we were on the same street as The Great Railway hotel. There was only the two of us about. He crossed over and walked straight up to the hotel. He took something from his pocket – a key? He appeared to be unlocking the main door. I stayed back in shadow across the street, holding my breath.
Sure enough, he opened the door, and without looking around, he went in. After a few seconds I crossed the road, went up to the door and looked in. It was dark inside. I walked along to see if there were any windows I could look through, but they were all boarded up. One strange thing was that the poster for the Music Hall show was no longer there – odd that it should have been removed in the last hour or so.
I returned to the door, intending to now carry on to Chinatown to eat. It puzzled me that he had gone inside, at night, alone, especially into this hotel of all places.
I tried the door. It opened. I slowly pushed it and went inside. I stood for a moment, adjusting to the darkness. High above, the ceiling must have had glass because moonlight shone down over the staircase. I could see the giant chandelier still hanging, the empty reception desk, the armchairs in the foyer. It looked exactly as I remembered, except deserted and dark.
I looked up and caught a glimpse of the man – he was climbing the staircase. He was about two floors up already. Without hesitating, I hurried to the stairs as quietly as possible and climbed, two stairs at a time.
I looked up again and saw him leaving the staircase and go through some double doors. I memorised where, and hurried after him. It was the fourth floor. With blood pounding in my ears, I gently opened the double doors and peered down the corridor. He was nowhere to be seen.
I walked past the rooms: 412, 413… it was really dark. Then I noticed a light coming from beneath the door of room 417.
My legs felt weird as I slowly approached the door. It felt like I was walking on a spongy floor, a trick floor in a house of fun. I stood motionless outside the room, looking down at the thin line of light.
Very slowly, I leaned towards the door and listened. Silence. I leaned closer so my ear was almost touching the wood. I stood trying to hear something above the roar of blood in my ears.
After a minute or so, I heard it.
His laugh was strange: loud, hollow, and somehow seemed to have pain in it.

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