'Good evening, how may I be of assistance?'
Melinda's mellifluous tones drifted across the reception desk in the lobby. The words were addressed to a man who had marched imperiously into the hotel from the street outside.
'I have a booking here for the next three weeks,' said the man.
I was sitting next to Melinda, counting paper-clips.
'Name?' I asked.
The man drew himself up to his full height, which must have been around six feet three inches, and gave me a withering glance.
'I am the Count von Straubenzee, Archduke of the Seltz region of Baldovia.
I glanced down at the list and found his name.
'Purpose of visit?' I asked.
'I am here on business. I intend to buy a share in a racehorse.'
'You're in the Royal Suite,' said Melinda, glancing over my shoulder.
'That is correct,' replied the Count.
'Second floor, end of the corridor,' I said. 'I'll ask Walter to bring up your luggage.'
The Count's luggage amounted to three huge suitcases and a cabin trunk.
I saw Walter standing by the dining-room door and beckoned him over.
'Walter, can you please take Count von...Strawberry's... valises upstairs? Royal Suite?'
'No fear,' said Walter, 'Need a bleedin' block and tackle to take that lot up. Besides, I'm on my break.'
Melinda looked at me with her large doe eyes.
'Alright, I'll do it.'
It took me twenty minutes and four journeys to deposit the Count's belongings in the Royal Suite.
The Count was less than satisfied with his accommodation.
'I have water closets in my chateau that are larger than this,' he said. 'You call this the Royal Suite, yet there is no evidence of royalty ever having stayed here.'
'I believe the great-grandfather of the Duke of Marlborough slept here one night,' I replied. 'His regular hotel was being refurbished and the Grand was the only other one open.'
'Hmmmpphh,' replied the Count and handed me a fifty-virol note. 'Currency in Baldovia,' he said, 'I have not had the opportunity to change my money.'
I checked later and discovered that fifty virol was equivalent to twenty-five pence.
'Isn't he gorgeous?' asked Melinda when I'd finished my arduous and unrewarded task and was back behind the reception desk.
'The Count, of course. Such poise, such dignity. It's obvious that he has blue blood. Tall, distinguished, handsome. I bet that scar on his cheek is from a duel with rapiers.'
'More likely he cut himself shaving.'
'You're just jealous,' said Melinda. 'He reminds me of that chap who used to be in those Hammer horror films in the seventies.'
'Bela Lugosi? He's got the teeth for it.'
'Christopher Lee, that's him.'
'Melinda, the Count's old enough to be your father.'
'So what? He'll be sophisticated and suave. To be seen on his arm would be a sign that you'd fetched up in the highest social circles. I'll bet he's met all the crowned heads of Europe. Where is Baldovia, by the way?'
'How would I know? I failed my geography GCSE. All those moraines and baskets of eggs topographies – I was hopeless.'
'Jonny, there's an atlas over there. Be a dear and find out for me, would you?'
I fetched over the atlas and looked Baldovia up in the index.
'Page sixty-six. Here it is. Tiny - about the size of Andorra. Stuck on the northern border of Romania - near all those Stans.'
'How romantic,' said Melinda, 'stuffed full of castles, mountains, werewolves, yeti and vampires.'
'More likely local councils with general purposes committees.'
'Jonny, you're such a cynic. You don't see the good in anybody.'
'Except you,' I said, under my breath.
The Grand Hotel, as you might have already guessed, is something of a misnomer. It might have been grand around 1910, but, by the time of the Count’s visit, it had the air of a decommissioned submarine. The regal red carpet in the passages was threadbare, the gold flock wallpaper was damp and peeling in places, the baths were all stained brown and the whole place could have done with a lick of paint. The hotel reflected the town in which it resided - Seacliff, on the south coast, a down-at-heel resort that made Blackpool look like Argèles-sur-Mer.
Why were Melinda and I working there?
Well, in my case, I did a course in hotel management at the local college but could only find a job at the Grand. I suspect that's because I came cheaper than the usual Latvian or Pole.
Melinda is the great-niece of the owners, a nice, ineffectual couple in their late seventies by the name of Merrill. They shuffled off this mortal coil a week apart a year ago and Melinda inherited the crumbling pile. In the absence of another permanent receptionist (my belief was that we didn't need two), she was filling in temporarily – though I harboured a sincere hope that she was doing so because she'd be next to me. In reality, I knew what she really wanted out of life was to be swept off her feet by the likes of Count Whatever-his-name-was and taken off to somewhere that wasn't Seacliff and given the hedonistic lifestyle she craved, instead of mouldering away running a third-rate seaside hotel. She’d already told me that I could manage the place in her absence. I smiled to myself, for it would be more rewarding to run a crematorium.
The Count re-emerged at dinner-time, having changed into more casual clothes. He was wearing a green herringbone tweed jacket, a pair of brown plus-fours and walnut-brown brogues.
'I require to dine here,' he said.
'Are you sure?' I said, 'there's a Burger King along the road and you'll get much better fare there.'
'This man is insolent,' said the Count to Melinda, 'in Baldovia we would have clapped him in irons and fed him bread and water for forty-eight hours.'
'It's not that much different here,' I said.
Melinda dug me in the ribs.
'I'll see if there's a table free,' she said, and moved gracefully into the dining room, which was empty, save for a commercial traveller who sold toiletries and an Elvis Presley impersonator who was due to perform in the Red Dragon in an hour.
'There is a table for one near the window,' said Melinda, 'a grand sea view. Pity it's dark outside. Anyway, Mavis will look after you.'
Mavis is the waitress. She's about a hundred years old with all the grace of a barracuda.
'She's a treasure,' added Melinda.
'Yes,' I said, 'it looks as if she's been dug up.'
Melinda gave me the stare that a famous diva might have given a customs official intent on a strip-search.
The Count strode into the dining-room and we watched his retreating back, Melinda with affection beaming from her eyes and me with undisguised loathing.
'I bet he's filthy-rich,' said Melinda. 'Did you see his cufflinks and tie-pin? Twenty-four-carat gold, they are.'
'Brass,' I said. I recalled his beaten-up luggage and how miserly his tip, both of which belied his so-called wealth, though rich men often drift around giving the impression that they've just wandered in from a food bank. I expected the share of the racehorse he wanted to buy was its left eyebrow.
'I bet he asks me out before the night's out,' said Melinda. ‘Of course, I shall go. I'll wear that cobalt blue dress, my white cashmere cardigan and my Valentino shoes.'
I'd seen her in those accoutrements, and she looked like a catwalk model.
Two-and-a-half weeks later, Melinda and the Count sat at a table in the Parthenon Restaurant on Jamboree Street, its fibre-glass pillars a pale imitation of the real thing. They had been out together every night since the Count arrived and I was becoming more and more distraught because it was clear that she had fallen for him in a big way.
Melinda gave me an account later of the conversation that took place between she and her beau as they chewed over their rubbery chicken and picked sticky brown rice from their molars with the prongs of a fork.
'When we're married,' the Count said, 'I'll whisk you away to my chateau high up in the Baldovian mountains. The views are tremendous, once the fog clears. You'll have the opportunity to meet my mother, the Dowager Lady Adina. You must remember to curtsey and never look higher than her knees.'
'Aren't you being a little presumptuous?' asked Melinda. 'After all, I haven't said I'll marry you yet.'
'Ah, I see. You are romantically attached to that dolt with whom you work?'
'I believe that is his name.'
I loved that giggle - it was like ice falling into a glass.
'Good heavens, no. I'm fond of him, of course, but marry him? Never.'
‘That is a relief - he has the brain of a stegosaurus and the manners of an alley-cat.’
‘You need to get to know him. He’s a sweetheart, really.’
‘He is a low-grade risipå.’
‘Yes, I suppose he is, whatever one of those is.’
The Count picked more rice from his teeth and laid his hand on hers across the table.
'My dearest angel, you do love me, don't you?' asked the Count.
Melinda looked at him - how handsome he was!
'I suppose so.'
'So, you'll have no objection to tying the proverbial knot with me?'
'What about my mother?'
'I can't marry you both.'
'No, I'm not asking you to do that. It's just that she's never met you.'
'She will, in time. I suggest we marry on Saturday at the registry office here and leave for Baldovia on Sunday.'
'I was hoping for a church wedding with a gorgeous dress, bridesmaids and a vicar, that sort of thing.'
'We'll have a second ceremony at my local church in Baldovia. There'll be singing to the melodious sound of the klaipsek, an appearance by Simeon Schmidt and his amazing dancing bear, glorious Baldovian food - sheep's eyes, yak's brains, and other such delicacies, and you will be the belle of the ball. You shall wear my mother's wedding dress, once I get rid of the mothballs. It is laced with pure gold and has enough pearls and emeralds to stuff a pillowcase.'
Melinda, entranced, gazed limply into the Count’s eyes and said, meekly:
'I will do as you ask, Tadeusz. Your wish is my command.'
That same evening, I was hard at it, rearranging the newspapers on the reception desk. The hotel lobby was empty, except for Colonel March, who was seated next to the fire exit. The Colonel is a permanent resident, one of those sad and lonely old geezers who find it preferable to spend their time in a run-down hotel, where they can at least meet and chat to other residents and the staff. The alternative for them is to sit alone in a one-bedroomed apartment looking through a dirty window at the crashing waves and filling in The Times crossword. The Colonel’s a sprightly old bird of about seventy-five, who might not be too steady on his pins these days, but who is mentally as sharp as a thorn. He misses nothing. He beckoned me over.
'You care for that girl, don't you?'
'Yes, I do.'
'And you don't approve of Count von Straubenzee?'
'I most certainly do not.'
'I believe the young lady is in danger,' said the Colonel.
'In danger of being a laughing-stock,' I said.
'No. I mean real danger.'
'Colonel, this is Seacliff. The most dangerous thing that happens here is when a seagull steals someone's chips.'
'I spent six months in Baldovia in the nineties,’ said the Colonel. ‘I was attached to a special unit sent to find out whether the government had rigged an election.’
‘And had they?’
‘Yes, of course they had, but that’s not the point.’
‘What is the point, exactly?’
‘He doesn’t look much different from when he was in his twenties. He has worn well, I’ll grant you that.’
‘Who?’ I was rapidly becoming baffled.
‘Why, the Count, of course. Except he’s no more a Count than Little Bo-Peep. He is, and was, what is commonly known as a confidence trickster.’
‘You met him?’
‘Yes. I interrogated him. He denied all knowledge of election-rigging, but I know a born liar when I meet one.’
‘What should I do, Colonel?’
‘He’s out with her tonight, isn’t he?’
‘Just like every night.’
‘You have a pass key, have you not?’
‘Then go to his room right now and check him out.’
‘That’s against the hotel’s rules.’
‘Who’s going to know? I won’t tell. I’d come with you if it wasn’t for this blasted leg.’
It was there, in black and white. I'd found it in one of the drawers in the Count’s bedroom. A deed of gift signing over the hotel to him in the event of anything happening to Melinda. Across the bottom of the document was her fluent signature. The fiend! I opened his cabin trunk. I found a rope, a pair of handcuffs, a gun and a knife. It became clear to me that he meant to do away with Melinda at the first opportunity and take over the hotel.
'What are you doing in my room?'
It was the Count, with Melinda by his side! They’d returned early, because the spotted dick they’d chosen for their dessert was so heavy and lumpen, it cracked the serving dish.
'I'm looking for a packet of liquorice allsorts I left here a week ago.'
'You insolent dog. I'll have the law on you.'
'You don't fool anybody. You're no more a Count than...Little Bo Peep.'
'Jonny, have you gone mad?' said Melinda. 'Tadeusz and I are to be married. I trust him implicitly.'
'Melinda, you would trust Ronnie Biggs with your life savings. Did you sign this?'
I waved the deed of gift in her face.
'Of course. Tadeusz says it's important to have a prenuptial agreement. You cannot live as man and wife in Baldovia if you don’t have one.'
'Poppycock. I suppose you cannot cross the border into that godforsaken country unless you're carrying a rope, handcuffs, a knife and a pistol.'
'Take care, my friend,' said the Count, 'there are laws against slander, and I have a witness.'
'Tadeusz,’ asked Melinda, pointedly, ‘why are you carrying a rope, handcuffs, a knife and a pistol?'
'My dear. There are foxes, golden eagles, buzzards and wild dogs everywhere in Baldovia. These are for my own protection.'
'Still at it, Count von Straubenzee, or should I say Domnul (Mister in Moldavian) Cristian Bogdan?'
Colonel March's quavering voice issued from the doorway. The Count turned round and met the colonel's rheumy eye with rage and consternation.
'Who the devil are you, sir? Speak out, before I lift a telephone for the Police.'
'Cast your mind back thirty years, Domnul Bogdan, to a small ante-room in one of the municipal buildings,’ said the Colonel, ‘I was much younger then, my hair was darker, my moustache didn’t droop quite so much, my shoulders weren't so stooped and I didn't have this blasted gammy leg. You sat in a deal chair and stonewalled my interrogation about election-rigging. I later found out about you from your more garrulous colleagues. You were not well-liked, Domnul Bogdan. Your friends told me you were a habitual liar to whom the truth was a complete stranger. You lie without a qualm or conscience, as you have lied to this charming young lady since you first met her.'
'You are Colonel...May?' gasped the Count.
'March,' corrected the Colonel, 'And you, sir, are an arch-villain.'
'Jonny,' asked Melinda, 'do you think it's still safe to marry the Count?'
'Certainly not,’ I replied. ‘His intention is to whisk you away to his home in Baldovia...'
'Which is not a chateau as he claims, but, if I recall, an apartment on the fifth floor of a block,' added the Colonel.
'At least it has three bedrooms and a bidet,' said the Count.
'...and once he gets you there,' I added, 'he intends to do away with you and the Grand Hotel will be his.'
'Tadeusz, is what Jonny and the Colonel are saying true?'
For an answer, the Count sprinted for the door. He might have made a swift exit had the Colonel not inserted his cane between his legs, resulting in him finishing up with his head stuck through the flimsy bedroom door opposite. Pity that it was thin plywood and not timber, for if it were the latter he might well have broken his neck.
In the end he got away with it. Nothing could be proven. The deed of gift was legitimate, and, although he carried a number of offensive weapons, the Police believed him when he said they were props for a crime play he was directing. Once a confidence trickster, always a confidence trickster.
Melinda? She sold the hotel soon afterwards and went on a world tour. I miss her terribly and am mightily ashamed that she dismissed my advances so readily, but as James Barrie once wrote: 'Life is a long lesson in humility.'
I got a job as the Colonel's secretary, and am currently engaged in typing out his memoirs, some of which I may lay before the public at some future time, especially the episode with Angéla in a hay-rick outside of Budapest.
The Count? It seems he tried his hand once too often and was arrested in Paris attempting to persuade a grande dame to invest thirty thousand euros in a play that was bound to close after one night - he'd recently watched the film The Producers and it gave him the idea. Even now, he's languishing in a French jail on bread and scrape because there's no extradition treaty with Baldovia. Good job, too - I can’t think of anybody who deserves his fate more.