The Defiant Ones

The Defiant Ones lodged in a suite in a hotel at the foot of a tremendous mountain. There were several of them. It is impossible to be precise about their number, for, true to their name, they defied accurate counting. If you attempted to take a tally, you would discover that one had popped out to the post office, or was concealed behind an arras, or one was counted twice by being duplicated in a mirror, or by radically changing his appearance in the middle of the counting. And after all, did it really matter how many, or how few, they were, the Defiant Ones?

It mattered to the major domo, who ran, as he liked to put it, “a tight hotel”. Most people would have used the common phrase “a tight ship”, but the major domo hated nautical metaphors, for reasons buried deep in his psyche, if he could be said to have a psyche, and whenever he was tempted to use one he plumped for hotel imagery instead. So he would say “worse things happen in hotels” rather than “worse things happen at sea”, or refer to the “mamahotel” in place of “the mothership”. Because of these verbal idiosyncracies, it was often said of him that he was born to the hotel business, even though in truth he was the progeny of death-defying circus acrobats. Was it their defiance of death that caused him to be so preoccupied with the Defiant Ones in the suite of the hotel?

It cannot be said that death was among the things defied by the Defiant Ones, for on at least one occasion the problem of counting them accurately hinged upon the fact that one or more of them had died, and rapidly been encoffined and carted away to a burial ground. The major domo, or his proxy tallyman, was unable to match the number of dead Defiant Ones with the number of coffins seen delivered to the hotel, nor indeed with the number of coffins later carted away. O such perplexity!

You would think a tallyman, employed by the hotel for the specific purpose of conducting counts and tallies, with no other duties to bother his big hairy head, could be relied upon to arrive at accurate numbers. And indeed, when counting rooms or corners in corridors or cutlery services or flower beds or types of blossom depicted upon wallpapers, the tallyman could not be faulted. He was even awarded bonuses. But the Defiant Ones, their numbers, and their coffins, defied him. This wreaked havoc with his sense of professional tallying worth, and for a time he took to drink. He might have ended in the gutter, were it not that his slide into degradation and debauch was halted by the major domo, by dint of persistent hectoring underscored by vivid hotel-related metaphors.

“Imagine a hotel…” the major domo would begin, slapping the tallyman round the face, in a pantry or a cubby where the latter had taken refuge with a bottle of mother’s ruin. The metaphors came pouring out thick and fast, until the tallyman had sobered up, and could see in his mind’s eye a gorgeous and glorious hotel, perched on a promontory overlooking a glittering sea, a sea empty of shipping.

In his turn, the major domo began to imagine his own hotel emptied of the Defiant Ones. How he wished they would leave! He gave instructions to the chambermaids to neglect cleaning the suite, but the Defiant Ones defied this ruse by doing their own cleaning. He had their breakfast sausages overcooked, or undercooked, or, in desperation, wholly absent from their plates, but they defied this by filling their bellies with extra kedgeree or kippers, obtained through machinations the major domo could never fathom, and his tallyman was helpless to prevent. He went so far as to devise a plot, Heliogabalus-like, to construct a false ceiling in their suite, with a view to smothering them under a cascade of roses and violets, but the Defiant Ones defied this by burning to a cinder every single florist’s shop for miles around.

Those florists who had lived above their business premises, which was almost all of them, now took rooms in the hotel, and this was to prove the undoing of the Defiant Ones. Their acts of arson had been ingeniously disguised as Acts of God, and thus they were not viewed with suspicion by the newly-arrived florist hotel guests. Yet an equilibrium, unacknowledged but decisive, was upset. The tallyman, quite capable of taking accurate count of the florists, reported their numbers daily to the major domo. And though the Defiant Ones still defied counting, it became obvious even to the untrained eye that they were outnumbered by florists. How could they hope to defy this stark fact, except by recruiting further Defiant Ones to their uncountable band? But there were only so many beds, so many easy chairs, so much oxygen that could be crammed into their suite. Something the Defiant Ones could not defy, try as they might, were the physical laws which governed not just the hotel, but the universe itself.

Though try they did. They all sat up one night, out on the balcony of their suite, by turns imploring the heavens and casting runes and conjuring Beelzebub to appear in a cloud of smoke and manoeuvring their arms in obscurely significant passing movements through the cold air. But in the morning, the balcony was the same balcony, the suite the same suite, the hotel absolutely the same hotel. At breakfast, there were no sausages to be had, though they saw the plates of the florists piled high with them. The Defiant Ones stuffed themselves with their mysteriously-obtained kippers and kedgeree and went clumping out of the breakfast room, making as much noise as possible, defiance etched on each of their defiant countenances. They hiked half way up the mountain, and took shelter in a bivouac from where they could look down upon the roof of the hotel, with its towers and chimneys and turrets. Sudden gusts of icy wind whipped in, but they defied them, staying where they were, huddling close together on the mountainside. Then, from above, from far above, a rumble of dislodged rocks. The Defiant Ones could not defy a mighty Alpine avalanche.

The hotel, however, could. The major domo had seen to that. At the first stirrings of the rumbling rocks high above, he set the tallyman to count and count again the avalanche-protection devices, and he gathered the florists and all the other guests in the hotel ballroom, and he announced, in his surprisingly high and squeaky voice, “Imagine a hotel… a hotel that evaporates at the approach of tumbling rocks in an Alpine avalanche, and then the very same hotel, identical in every detail, comes shimmering into solid form, miles away, at the foot of a different, more stable mountain, and all around the fields are rife with blossoms, a riot of blossoms, ready for the plucking. Imagine that.”

And so they did, and so we do.

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