For most of its life the back of our house has given onto a row of little Victorian shops, facing in turn on to the main road. It was the sort of little row of shops that might have inspired a soap opera. In fact, it did; Arnold Bennett wrote a novel about it, which has its fans.
Then they pulled the shops down and put up a large and gloomy Travelodge. It is a soap opera too.
When we moved in, our neighbour Andrew said that the Travelodge although large and gloomy was on the whole a good thing. You can sit at your window in the evening with a glass of wine, he said, and watch what’s going on in it. The things they do, he said; it’s better than a show. I imagined from the fleetingly lubricious tone of his voice that he was referring simply to the sexual antics of the Travelodge’s guests, and well he might: it is extraordinary what people will do without drawing the curtains.
A rather tubby middle-aged man took a room a couple of years ago with a much younger lad. They were there for a week. He was relentless. Every time you glanced over he was at it, day and night, pumping away. Then a year later they came back for another week. I suppose it is their summer holiday.
With some of them there is undoubtedly an element of showing off. There was another couple, this time heterosexual. Again they were at it right in the window. They rang the changes: a bit of oral, a bit of the other sort of oral, from behind, on top – all in a predetermined order, just like a show.
So every so often there is something to be seen from our kitchen or bathroom, or, before the spring went, while seated on the exercise bicycle. One worries about staring. It is after all rude. But I was brought up to think that it is important always to keep one’s eyes open.
Over the years subtleties have become apparent, and for those of jaded tastes the subtleties have proved more intriguing that the mere quantity of flesh on display and its routine juxtaposition.
There is the strangeness of what people will do to one another.
For most of a Saturday afternoon, a couple entertained each other. By all appearances they reached an entirely satisfactory conclusion – certainly they went and washed when it was over – but they did so without removing any of the impeding garments. Hands disappeared into voluminous track suit bottoms. Loins strained against denim.
A couple of chaps were nonchalantly dressing in the morning. So was I. One put on a suit and left first. The other put on a wig and a frock and left too.
Then there is the literariness. At the end of a Friday evening a door is flung open. A young man and a young woman are framed in the doorway, lit by the light in the corridor. Both are dressed as for a business do, and they appear just to have slipped away from their colleagues. They kiss deeply. His hands roam her besuited bottom and try in vain to get some purchase on the skirt, which does not however move. He gestures to her. It is as clear as in a silent film (to whose conventions we have all been recently reintroduced by The Artist). He is proposing that they both enter what is obviously her room. She gestures back, equally clearly. No, it cannot be. I am an HR Executive, and you are merely an Accounts Assistant. She shuts the door, gently – achingly gently – but firmly in his face. She turns to the camera, her head in her hands, and makes the gesture indicating uncontrolled weeping.
Finally there are moments of pure poetry. Last Christmas a window framed two Chinese girls. One cavorted around the room, scantily but decently clad, dancing and throwing her arms around like a girl in a painting by Balthus. In the foreground, at the window, the other girl was motionless, her head bowed, her hands clasped together in prayer.
I don’t know. Probably they were interpreting the Christmas message in their different ways.
This is all – because of the impersonality lent by the silence, the distance between our house and the hotel and by the formal framing of the windows – largely untitillating, curiously dignified, even Homeric. And if you go down to the main road and look through the front window into the bar you can see the characters again, fully clothed, moving about in real life, entirely unHomeric, just like Travelodge customers.