On the seafront in the town of Scroonhoonpooge stands the Hotel Splendido! (That exclamation mark, by the way, is part of its name, not my own excitable interjection.) To the local Scroonhoonpoogers, however, it is invariably known as “the mysterious hotel”.
The mystery of the mysterious hotel is that nobody seems to know the nature of its mystery. Like any other hotel, it has seen its share of puzzling incidents – a vanished sock in the laundry, intermittent hissing noises on the intercom, the face of Stalin on a slice of toast – but these are mundane and ephemeral. What is the overarching mystery of the mysterious hotel?
One man who was unable to prise this question out of his head was Detective Captain Unstrebnodtalb. When he was tiny, he regularly stayed at the Hotel Splendido! for a summer fortnight, for Scroonhoonpooge was his parents’ favoured holiday destination. Early, then, he learned the locals’ term, and badgered his ma and his pa and other adults to reveal the mystery to him. But of course nobody did, for nobody knew.
Through the passing years, and during his career as a tiptop detective captain, he never quite stopped thinking about the mystery of the mysterious hotel. He no longer visited the seaside resort, for his dear wife was terrified of the sea, and all their holidays together were taken at inland spots, forests and dingles and coppices.
But there came a time when that good woman perished in a tobogganing accident, and, the next summer, the widower Unstrebnodtalb determined to return to the scene of his youth. Armed, now, with many years’ experience of tiptop detective work, he felt confident that he could solve the mystery that had perplexed him for so long.
He arrived at Scroonhoonpooge Parkway railway station on a blisteringly hot July afternoon. He was astonished to note that the porter, who took his suitcase from him and carried it the length of the platform, all the way to the station gate, was the very same porter he remembered from childhood. Yet the man had not aged, at all. Nor had the station itself changed.
“I feel I am stepping back into the past,” he said to the porter.
“I’m afraid I have no idea what you are talking about, sir,” said the porter.
They were now at the gate, and Unstrebnodtalb gazed at the town square, and across to the seafront, and the back of the Hotel Splendido! Everything seemed utterly unchanged from when he had last seen it forty years before.
“I have not been here since I was a child,” he said, “And it seems utterly unchanged.”
The porter gave him an odd look, as if he were a dangerous lunatic, and hurried away to carry another suitcase for another disembarked railway passenger.
Looking about him in wonderment, Unstrebnodtalb made his way to the seafront. Everything was as he remembered it – the brass band in the square playing oompah music, the pie and pastry shop, the creaking tram with its vampiric conductor, the stone statue of Ringo Starr. Bewildered and unnerved, he stepped into the hotel lobby.
Here, at least, things had changed. If anything, the interior of the Hotel Splendido! looked like a vision of the future, the distant future. He marched up to the reception desk, which was more like a space age console.
“I have a reservation,” he said, “Detective Captain Unstrebnodtalb.”
“Ah yes,” said the receptionist, peering at the screen of a superdupercomputer. Then, “Oh, I’m sorry. Your room has already been re-reserved by another guest.”
“What do you mean, re-reserved”
“Well, it is all hustle and bustle in the hotel business, you know. We can’t let time stand still.”
And he looked up, and Detective Captain Unstrebnodtalb realised that the receptionist was a hyperintelligent monkey, at an advanced stage of evolution.