Tuesday 19 July 2016

Second prize winner in GW/FLF Short Story competition 2016

The Wondwossi Hotel Bar by James Woolf

They visited her for years, this eccentric old aristocrat on the hillside; businessmen, tourists, journalists, teachers, and locals alike.
   As often as not, they came here to stop, to escape the thrum and turbulence of the city, and perhaps to have a conversation. Sometimes these conversations led to love affairs or business deals and occasionally to squalid fights on the terrace. Other interactions fizzled and were forgotten in moments.
   For when they are here, these patrons, standing tall on the varnished wooden floor, they are the hotel bar’s life blood, as if they’ve never existed elsewhere. But when they are gone, others step up immediately, chuntering between the white walls and cultural bric-a-brac, equally present and alive: they too become the place itself.
   Over there, a young boy sits with his father – in that corner, under the solemn painting of the two brothers. He drinks lemonade as a reward for his achievements at the chess table. His father, in Addis Ababa for a year on business, is repeating the history of this museum piece, built on the whim of an empress at the dawn of the twentieth century. But Oliver is eavesdropping on a young European couple, hoping to hear words of love, which will mean that they are having sex. Years from now, he will return to the Wondwossi Hotel and, in this same bar, will meet an academic from Jijiga. This woman, apparently with no agenda other than to speak with him, and to laugh, will join him at the night’s end in the four-poster bed in his high ceilinged room. And again, years later, when he sets out to find her, he’ll discover that she had become pregnant with his child.
   Yeneta, the new barman serves cheap draft beer to Oliver’s father. He’s concerned that his mental arithmetic skills may be insufficient for the job. He plans to study biology but will become distracted by friends, and then by a family, and will work at the Wondwossi for years to come. When asked about studying, he’ll say that people are his subject and that observing them is life’s greatest lesson. In a decade or so, Judy, whose conversation Oliver was straining to overhear, will also return. She’ll spend a week, sitting alone in the bar, consuming trashy novels, whilst trying to decide what to do with her life.
   Judy feels let down by her bicycling husband; and certainly, in the Wondwossi, many promises are made and just as many broken. Many pairs of roving eyes are noticed by Yeneta. He notices everything, in fact, until – returning home one wretched night – he is caught beneath the wheels of a motorcycle and never regains consciousness.
   Yeneta’s fate still awaits him when Oliver collides with Habesha in the hotel’s revolving doors. Oliver apologises and begins a conversation. The bar by now shows signs of shabbiness. Plaster falls from the white walls leaving gaps like pock-marked skin. It is though in many respects still a fine hotel. Ethiopian jazz plays once again in the club, after music all but died during the Red Terror. Oliver tells Habesha about his chess tournaments as a boy and how happy he is to be back after all this time. Habesha talks of a memory of riding with her father on their only camel to see her dying grandmother in a Jijiga hospital; her first visit away from their mud-hut to the city; her first sip of Coca Cola; her first sight of the university where she would work.
   You can see how they bring pieces of themselves, but how, mostly, their lives are left outside. Like Mitiku, who returns nightly for what seems like months with his friend Nega after the sudden death of Mitiku’s young bride. In this bar, she is neither named nor mentioned, because language can be stretched to cover the holes in people’s lives. But she is present in the looks that pass between the two old friends as they raise their glasses in their nightly journey towards oblivion.
   And they spot, but do not speak with, Judy, immersed in her week of intensive reading, although she does have a single conversation with Jared, an ex-soldier, and Yeneta clocks this, and also sees them stealing away from the bar together before Judy returns alone (within the hour).
   Over the years, so many thoughts unspoken. So many people kept waiting for dates by careless partners who will arrive and apologise so loudly and profusely that the very bar itself believes their words to be sincere. So many messages left on cell phones, or at the reception desk in the cavernous vestibule, including many for Judy from Jared (all of which naturally go unanswered).
   There were rumours, tensions of course, and everyone knew the potential capabilities of Al-Shabaab to strike in the heart of the capital. But nobody saw it coming in the way that it did.
   A newspaper with the headline RIP The Wondwossi lies face up in the rubble. Now in their fifties, standing in front of the ruins and attempting to understand what has happened, Oliver and Habesha feel as if this is already old news.
   They had seen the story of the series of strategic explosions which had taken out different parts of the historic hotel. They had watched it on television in their small Jijiga flat. They had acted as one and driven over to Addis Ababa the next day.
   The walls are collapsed. Historic artefacts destroyed. Oliver and Habesha know that thirty seven are dead and dozens more wounded.
   Their grown-up daughter, Lola, is with them. She is training to be a chemist and they have many hopes and fears for her future. They point to the entrance where they first met – “is that really the remains of the revolving door?” – and they hold hands, the three of them, they actually stand on that spot once again, but are moved on by a security man.
   “This site is not safe,” he says. “Please. Please move along.”

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