You Don’t Have a What? by Colin Cotterill

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“Just swipe before you go up, sir, if you don’t mind.”

I assumed this was some peculiar Yorkshire dialect I’d never master. He probably meant ‘wipe’. We’d just trudged from Harrogate station through the rain and my lace-up shoes for grown-ups (Unused for the previous year) were wet. I went to the doormat and shook myself. He remained at the desk holding a chunky Star Trek sidearm and a troubled expression. He still hadn’t given me my room key.

This was day one of the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival 2009 and I had my mission statement printed out in my back pocket. My publicity lady had held it before her face and read it to me in case it was too difficult for a boy from out-of-town to grasp.

“Colin,” she read. “What we expect you to do is stand in the bar, drink a lot from our tab and exchange pleasantries with as many authors and publishers as possible until the early hours of the morning. Try not to do or say anything embarrassing.” I’ve had some tough jobs in my life. I was once a window cleaner at the Sutton student nurses dormitory. But I knew this was going to be tough. They said they wanted me to fit. Be one of the literati. Blend in. But standing in the bar at the Harrogate festival not saying or doing anything embarrassing would surely make me stand out like a sore thumb. I’d been there before.

Of course, first things first. I still had to check in and something was undoubtedly amiss. It was our Jess who solved the mystery. Jess who recognized two words on Coronation Street as being English. Jess who was certain Val McDermid was a native speaker of Scandinavian. Jess might have linguistic problems but she’s fluent in IT and she picked up on the word ‘swipe’.

“They want a credit card,” she said.

Why didn’t he just say so? Problem solved.

“We don’t have one,” I told him.

“You don’t have a what?” said the bloody-cheeked manager.

“A credit card”, said I.

Of course I’d seen that expression before. A fleeting smile, a long probing stare with a silence background, a pitying frown. Even in the better hotels in Bangkok they’d perfected the self-same expression. It asked, who, of any worth, of any standing in society, DIDN’T have a credit card?

“Me!” I’d say.

“I can pay,” I’d say.

“I have a big bag full of money,” I’d say, only too aware that there are large chunks of the service industry who don’t know what money is. I once offered to hand over a thick wad of cash equal to the value of a rental car but they still refused to let me drive off with it. I am a monetarily handicapped person but I still reserve the right to do all my financial deals with actual cash if I so wish. Call me irresponsible.

The manager wasn’t prepared to grant me my rights without a fight. He was on the phone for a very long time and I don’t know who he finally got through to, but eventually he stood before me with his left ear in one hand and our key in the other. His head shook almost imperceptibly as if he was imagining what hellish damage we might do to his suite. We boarded the lift. One tiny step for a man without vinyl.

We changed and headed for the Crown Hotel where we would undoubtedly forget our credit debacle amidst the revelry of awards night and the grand welcome party. We passed the bar where authors had already begun to act and speak in an embarrassing manner. I picked out a spot beside a sturdy pillar from which to launch my own unique blend of foolishness in an hour or so.

But first, to the reception desk to register. My name was not on the list. Word must have spread that I was an unreconstructed hippy with no respect for banking. But with no registration I didn’t exist and there would be no complementary tickets or, more importantly, no free drinks. We stood to one side watching the happy fans parade into the dining hall. Through the imposing wooden doors I caught a glimpse of thousand of full Old Peculier bottles massed together like penguins. I could see the disturbingly attractive eastern European waitresses flit from person to person with tasty snacks and bottles of wine. But Oliver Twist and Mrs. Oliver Twist stood stuck outside and the last of the guests disappeared through the doors and there was no hope for us.

(Will Col and Jess find a way into the ball? Will our intrepid author have his opportunity to act disgracefully? Tune in next week for part two of our story. Or not. Up to you)

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