On the eve of his hopeful step toward the big time, a small town talent runs into trouble.
| Philip Westgate found immense satisfaction in being just who he was.
Philip Westgate. Everything about him was … well, simply marvellous. Except for one thing: his immediate surroundings. Philip’s nose wrinkled as he looked about the room. Even when it was new, there could have been little that was regal about Regina’s Prince of Wales Hotel. And now, after nearly a century of exuberant misuse by generations of rough-shod sod busters, the establishment’s most outstanding feature was it vile reputation.
His eyes roved around the room and took in the limp curtains, a crookedly hung picture and the cigarette burns on the dresser and carpet. A steam radiator clanked and gurgled, reminding Philip of the intense cold outside. “At least it’s warm in here,” he thought. “With that big winter fair on, I was lucky to get even this. Imagine having to spend the most important time of my life in this wheezy run-down old whore of a hotel. But surely, the CBC people will understand.”
He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror, and as he usually did, stopped to admire what he saw. A slim six-footer. Blonde hair, thick and curly. He ran his fingers through the curls and smiled to see them snap back into place. Eyes as blue as cornflowers, he had been told. A nose, noble without being the least bit aquiline. A lean face and a commanding jaw with a beguiling cleft in its middle. And the mouth. He caught his breath. “Mmmm! That smile and those teeth!”
He was a small-town teacher who didn’t want to be one and who daily gave fervent thanks that he didn’t look at all like one. His ambition was to be on display before a larger audience, an audience in the theater; if not as a performer, then as a director, producer or some lesser functionary. Anything would do to begin with, just as long as it got him out of that stultifying classroom and into the world of dreams – the world of music and drama. And he was very good at both. He smiled complacently. The musical that he had written and put on at Swan Lake had turned out to be such a smashing success. They entered the Provincial Drama Festival and won top honors, due mostly to his songs, especially that crazy novelty song, “Wild Oats”. The cast had had such fun with it. They weren’t very good singers, but the song was terrific, and now the CBC was interested in him. Their reply to his letter had stated that some Toronto brass were planning to be in Regina and would find time to interview him. He might be on his way out of Swan Lake and Saskatchewan forever. “Wild Oats” could be his swan song. He smiled as he envisioned his future greatness.
But the CBC team were very busy and on a tight schedule. A tangle of conflicts resulted in cancellations and delays. It had finally been decided that the only opportunity for the interview would be early the following morning before the CBC people returned to Toronto.
Philip was ready. He had driven in from Swan Lake the day before – a good day’s drive even in the summer and nothing to be trifled with in this January cold snap. He had taken time to think about what he should wear. Dark suit, tie and cufflinks? For a morning breakfast meeting? He didn’t want to look either dapper or too formal. Jeans and sweater? Maybe too casual for a job-seeker, even with the CBC. That morning he had passed by a menswear store where he found exactly what he wanted: an Irish tweed sports coat. It looked perfect with his charcoal slacks and cashmere sweater. It had taken him the rest of the day to find the right shirt, but there it was on the dresser, propped against the mirror and gleaming in its cellophane wrapping. He hoped he would meet at least one woman on this CBC team.
If only he weren’t staying in this fleabag hotel. But surely they would understand. They would know the circumstances. Maybe they’re not much better off themselves. But not likely. A big corporation like the CBC would have all the drag necessary to find good hotel rooms for its executives. He knew that they were planning to take him to the airport for breakfast. Fine. An earlier plan that had had to be abandoned was for them to have dinner downtown that night. In anticipation of the dinner, Philip had bought a bottle of single malt scotch so that he would have something ready to offer if they happened to come up to his room. “Can’t go wrong with a good scotch,” he thought. “It will show them that I’m not a complete bumpkin.”
What to do before bed? Philip looked around. Two chairs. A broken TV. Waste-paper basket. The bed, of course. A table with a telephone and an ashtray. But what an ashtray! It was a massive glass octagon. “Good heavens! Where could they ever have found something like that? I could wash my feet in that thing.” Beside it was the bottle of whisky. He wouldn’t need it now. Too bad. It was expensive. There wasn’t much use in keeping it for his return to Swan Lake. There was no one there to share it with. Those peasants drink nothing but rye.
Philip picked up the bottle and studied the label. What was so special about a single malt? Anything besides the price? Maybe he should try it. A generous nightcap might be a good idea. But he would need some ice.
Room service? Probably not in this dump. Philip thought he had noticed an ice machine at the end of the hall. He went to the door and peered out. Yes, there it was. The corridor was very quiet. He listened. There wasn’t even the murmur of voices. He felt for his room key and then remembered that it was in his overcoat pocket in the closet. Why bother locking up? The ice was only down the hall. He kept the door ajar with the heavy ashtray and, plastic ice bucket in hand, strolled toward the ice machine.
There was no ice. The machine wasn’t working. There might be one on the next floor. The stairway was right there. Should he go down or up? Philip chose up.
Two minutes or so later, with ice bucket filled, he was back on his own floor hurrying toward his room. As he neared, he heard something that made him stop. Had it come from his room? He thought so. He eased forward and listened. There was the scratch and flare of a match being lit followed by a muttered oath. It was his room, but whoever it was wasn’t lying there in ambush. Maybe someone from Swan Lake. He pushed the door open and walked in.
The intruder was a woman dressed in worn jeans and a puffy blue windbreaker. She stood with her feet astride over a cardboard carton of beer, the top torn open to reveal bottles gleaming darkly inside. She was trying to light a cigarette, but couldn’t manage to bring the match to her cigarette end before the flame went out. Philip knew he had to take charge, so he spoke out masterfully. “You shouldn’t be in here. Get out this instant!” He almost stamped his foot.
She bleered at him and swayed unsteadily. “Light me this here cig’rette.”
“Certainly not! Now get out of here.”
She didn’t like Philip’s tone of voice. She stood a little more erect and even squared her shoulders. “Light me this here cig’rette.”
“No. You’ll have to clear out of here. Right now.” Philip confronted her directly. Lank hair was pulled back into a careless ponytail. Steel-rimmed spectacles sat askew on a sallow face that was nestled into the upturned collar of the windbreaker. There were scratches and traces of blood on her face. The cigarette protruding from her mouth was scorched. Taking it between index finger and thumb, she removed it from her mouth. Philip could see that a front tooth was missing.
Her voice rose. “You gonna light my cig’rette?” She fumbled with her box of matches and matches spilled out onto the floor. She returned the cigarette to her lips. She seemed to be daring him not to light it.
“All right. I’ll light it for you. But then you will have to go. You can’t stay here.” He knelt to pick up some matches. He lit one and held it to the end of the cigarette. The woman sucked until the cigarette was lit and then took several more deep puffs. Philip recoiled. He had never smoked. He thought the smoke would dull his teeth. “All right. That’s it. Now will you please leave?”
She eyed him speculatively and grinned. “Hey, you’re cute. Let’s have a party. I got beer.”
“No. There will be no party. I don’t want your beer. Take it and go. Right now.”
She didn’t seem to hear. She glanced around the room, puffing smoke in every direction, then went over and sat on the bed, continuing to draw heavily on her cigarette. “What’s your name, eh?”
“George,” said Philip. “Now will you get out of here?”
“I ain’t going nowheres. It’s cold outside. And we better drink this here beer.” She fumbled in the carton, pulled out a bottle and extended it toward him. “Here, open me this beer.”
“No. You can’t drink it here. You’ll have to go somewhere else. Now go!” He thought about throwing her out. Could he do it? She looked tough. He shuddered at the thought of shouts and screams. Several Swan Lake families were in Regina for the fair. Maybe some had to stay right here in this hotel. The front desk should be able to help. He picked up the telephone. There was no dial tone. “Oh darn! What else can you expect in a place like this?”
He went over and stood before her. She looked up, grinning, and patted the space beside her. “Okay now, let’s have some beer, eh.” She hitched herself sideways a little to make room. “We’ll have a real good time. Jus’ you and me, eh.” Philip seized her by her upper arms and tried to pull her to her feet. She grabbed his forearms and pulled back. There was a brief tussle that Philip knew he would lose. He broke free. “Don’t mess with me, big boy. Just open me this here beer. There’s some for you too.”
“I don’t want your beer. I just want you to go. Why won’t you go?”
“I got no place to go. An’ it’s cold out there. You gonna open this beer?” Bottle in hand, she drew her arm back as if to throw. “I’ll throw it right inta that mirrer.”
Philip capitulated. He had noticed a bottle opener fastened to the bathroom wall. He took the bottle into the bathroom. When he returned he saw that the woman had removed her windbreaker. He set the bottle on the table, picked up the jacket and threw it into the hall. She reached out to take the opened bottle and returned to her place on the bed. Gesturing toward the beer carton, she grinned again. “Help yourself,” she invited and then tipped her bottle to her mouth and drank. When she finally set the bottle down, she wiped her mouth and chin with her forearm. “My smokes are in my jacket. You better get ‘em.”
“Nothing doing! Get them yourself.”
She stood up and pulled back the sleeves of her sweatshirt. Her arms were scratched and abraded. Then she raised the waistband of the shirt almost to her neck, revealing a bare belly and breast also bearing the scars of battle. “I’ll say that you raped me. The cops’ll throw you in jail.”
Philip retrieved the jacket and tossed it to her. “How did all that happen?”
“We had a fight. Me an’ that guy. He wouldn’t pay me. He couldn’t do nothing an’ figgered he shont hafta pay.”
“That guy who took me here. He wouldn’t pay, so I punched him out. I took his beer too.” She nodded several times for emphasis.
“I’ll pay you to go. How much would it cost you to take a taxi home?” Philip took out his wallet and extracted a twenty-dollar bill. “Will this get you home?” He held it up for her to see, but pulled it back barely in time to evade her attempt to snatch it from him. He put the money away. “Now don’t try any more tricks with me. My offer is still good. I’ll give you twenty dollars if you leave, but you’ve got to get out of here first. I’ll give you the money out in the hall.”
“I got to pee first.” She went to the bathroom and closed the door.
Philip acted swiftly. He propped the door open again with the ashtray, scooped up her jacket, the loose bottles and the carton, grabbed the bottle of scotch and ran with them out into the hallway where he set the lot on the floor out of reach from the doorway. He fished the twenty from his pocket and put it with the beer, making sure it would be visible from the doorway. Then he hurried back into the room and waited for the woman. She seemed to be taking a long time. He returned the ashtray to its place on the table.
Finally she emerged from the bathroom. Philip couldn’t hide his excitement. He felt that he had won. He stepped grandly to the door and seized the knob. He motioned for her to come and look. “Now here’s the deal. Your jacket, the booze and taxi fare are all out there on the floor. All you have to do is go out there and pick it up.” He swung the door wide open.
They both looked out. There was nothing there. Someone had taken everything.
Ablaze with anger, she turned on him. “You think you can trick me? I’ll show you.” And she plowed into him, striking and kicking. Unprepared for the sudden violence, Philip retreated back into the room. He tripped and fell to his knees. Before he could regain his feet, she brought the ashtray smashing down on his head. Again. And again.
Later the next day, the desk clerk was responding to a police officer. “Well, you never can tell. He’s been here a couple o’ days. He was in and out a few times, but I never saw him with anybody. I thought he was here on boney fide business and not just to sow his wild oats. But now we’ll never know.”