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A Room of one’s Own

The ritual unfolds predictably on both sides. It is usually midnight. The taxi has left you in a deserted side-street, and the door to the hotel is locked. You knock hopefully, and the grizzled night-manager rises like a ghost from his improvised bed and shuffles forward to the door. There is a rattle of keys. Above the reception desk hangs a portrait of the Ayatollah, under whose implacable gaze you ask if there is a room to be had for a solitary traveller.

‘Ya Ali,’ mutters the manager to himself, licks his thumb, and turns the pages of a Dickensian register dense with swirling script.

‘Passport?’ This he opens from the wrong end, fans through the pages, and with a look of exasperation, tosses aside. ‘A single room? Ten thousand tomans. It’s the government-regulated price.’

‘No it’s not,’ you protest, ‘that’s the tourist price. Do I look like a tourist?’

‘Alright.’ He sighs heavily, and scratches his chests under his open shirt. He is in no mood for the challenge. ‘You speak Persian - seven thousand.’

‘Seven thousand? Here, I’ll fill out the form for you if it’s too much effort.’ This you do.

‘I have never seen a foreigner do that,’ he says, half to himself.

‘And I have never paid so much for a room.’

‘Six thousand, then. But you pay in dollars.’

‘Dollars? What have I to do with dollars? I am English. My currency is the pound.’

A look of suspicion follows this revelation. He asks how much a pound is worth; a dollar and a half, you explain.

‘If the pound is worth more, then you are even richer than an American.’

‘If I were that rich,’ you say, casting an exaggeratedly cynical glance around the place, ‘then why would I stay here?’

‘Alright. Five thousand.’ He hands you the key, and flings your passport into a drawer. ‘England’, you hear him mutter as the register is slammed shut, ‘the mother of all politics...’

Upstairs you realise the effort is not wasted: the room is worth even less. On the floor lies a plate with the remains of an unfinished meal. The door won’t lock from the inside. The sheets have not been changed since the last occupant, merely shaken; and the pillow bears the unmistakable imprint of a head, and gives the impression of a having been hurriedly abandoned. Overhead, a pair of fluorescent lights comes reluctantly to life; one blinks stubbornly, and its twin buzzes like an old fridge.

You don an undersized pair of plastic slippers to enter the bathroom, where the taps spit like demented cobras. Above the cracked mirror, tendrils of bare wire unfurl from a lamp-fitting that was fitted. And in a tiny adjoining chamber, where the light refuses to function, you approach with deep apprehension a dark and slippery vortex, from which issues an indescribable fragrance. None of the usual amenities accompany this unavoidable encounter. There is only a plastic tube grafted to the cold water pipe which, when activated, writhes across the floor with unexpected force, spraying you icily where you least expect.

You wash your hands, and realise the drain from the sink trickles over your toes.  The shower offers a different challenge: it shakes epileptically for a minute, coughs up a splash of tepid water, and expires. Then, as you experiment with the wrongly-labelled taps, a boiling torrent descends on your back. You wash as a family of inconvenienced cockroaches takes refuge in a recess inches from your face. Only afterwards do you realise there is neither soap nor towel. Leaning against the sink to steady yourself back into the sandals, it detaches from the wall and slumps downwards like a bombed-out bridge.

For half an hour, all is silent. There is nothing for it but to read; but the cold glare of the fluorescent lights overhead soon gives you a headache. Meanwhile, the heating system has come to life and the radiator begins to pulse with metallic spasms, as though its pipes, somewhere deep in the building, are being violently snapped. You are grateful for the warmth. But soon it is producing more energy than a small power station, and is impossible to regulate. Opening the window to cool the room, you realise that the noise of heavily-laden trucks, which have inexplicably begun to fill the little street below, will make it impossible to sleep. They roar past, billowing diesel fumes, shaking the building and detonating the night air with their triple-toned air-horns. The radiator leaks, too; in the morning, the book you have abandoned on the floor is a sodden pulp.

The door is paper-thin. The bed is too short. The pillow is like a sandbag, and the sheets are as rough as sandpaper.  By one o’clock, the heating system and the trucks have quietened down, and your eyelids grow heavy. But at two, a battalion of conscripts arrives and begins to tramp up and down the corridor, shouting, laughing, smoking, and slamming doors. An hour later, it is almost silent, except for the sonorous drip of the cistern, like a Chinese torture.... but at last, as the sky begins to lighten in the East, sleep descends like a healing balm - until dawn, when a construction team begins demolishing the wall of the room opposite. But it would be wrong to suggest that rooms are always this bad. Some, to be fair, are worse.