A short story for radio Holidays Forever

Hotel room designed after a painting by Edward Hopper
Hotel room designed after a painting by Edward Hopper | Photo: Travis Fullerton, © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

This radio prose story by Sascha Ehlert is set in a hotel room, Ella Fitzgerald is singing on the radio, everything is calm and peaceful – until suddenly something extraordinary happens.

Outside was the city in all its permanence. Inside was Florin, alone with his thoughts and his two phones. A few hours earlier he had arrived at this hotel, which attracted and disgusted him in equal measure. At lunchtime, having handed over just his rucksack initially at reception – something he always did no matter where he travelled – and already found his thoughts racing in inner turmoil, seeking to slow the pace like someone who feels at home anywhere – that was when he felt as though he had “truly” arrived. Now that his hunger was sated, Florin pulled out his keycard and opened the door to Room 305. Inside it smelled like rhododendrons, a scent that was part of the hotel’s design concept.

A radio was playing music. At that precise moment a jazz song was on, which Florin’s subconscious was swiftly able to identify as “It don’t mean a thing (if it ain’t got that swing)” by Duke Ellington, sung by Ella Fitzgerald. And from this he immediately knew what the hotel room outfitting would be like: several dimmed indirect light sources, new furniture that attempted to evoke the aesthetics and aura of old Europe, a dark brown desk with a little stool in front of it, a minibar in a Smeg fridge, dark, heavy, closed curtains – and bedding made from raw linen.

Florin’s rucksack stood in the open wardrobe, as if it had already been standing there for days or weeks. Its owner briefly considered testing out the small yet ornate ensuite with its brown Emperador marble look by masturbating in there, but instead he decided to take off his leather boots and jeans and flop onto the bed. Logically enough it was a king size, taking up a good two-thirds of the room. Florin loved this feeling of lying down. Especially in hotel rooms with closed curtains and good soundproofing.

While he lay there like that, gazing at the ceiling and even ignoring his phone, which lit up every so often to alert him to its presence, everything just faded more and more into the darkness. First of all the radio, which continued to play a tasteful selection of random music from the past, and then increasingly Florin’s brain activity. He had felt incredibly decadent when the thought had occurred to him (of course he had not voiced it, Florin was way too modest in that respect), but maybe it was true: “Other people meditate, I sleep in hotels.” At any rate, our protagonist felt himself steadily becoming one with the bedlinen, sinking into the pillow. Although his eyes were wide open, his self-awareness had departed for an extended moment. Until something extraordinary happened.

Suddenly Florin noticed the radio again, which he had earlier so resolutely dismissed into the background. The space-time continuum had mended again, and reality was starting to take hold in Florin’s hotel room. “It was murder,” said the voice, completely and utterly unmusically in a language that wasn’t his and which Florin nevertheless understood. He started to feel his legs again now. Then the voice on the radio said that a police officer had shot a boy in a shopping centre, who a short time earlier had kicked down one of the touchscreens for ordering fries and burgers in McDonald’s. The situation had escalated within moments.

At first the other restaurant customers had been frozen to the spot, an eyewitness was saying – live on air. Everyone was looking at the policeman and his colleague, both of whom seemed to be standing still too – their weapons still aimed at the boy, who was taking his final breaths on the ground. Then, before the two uniformed officers could move, the store manager of the branch came to secure the glass doors that separated the McDonald’s from the rest of the mall. Now the bystanders started moving as well – and formed a circle around the scene of the crime. When the two “leading characters” realised what was happening around them, there was only one option left: to reach for their radios. “Reinforcements. Now. Send everything you can get.”

In the meantime presumably a variety of TikTok videos and Instagram stories had been uploaded – all with the same essential message: cops are murderers. And: come to McDonald’s in the shopping mall. Florin reached for his phone, unlocked it, and looked at his newsfeed, which showed people at that very moment in Berlin drinking crémant, or on holiday in resorts only a few nautical miles from the refugees on their boats and the border officials hunting them down. Florin quickly put the phone down again.

He thought that only a minute has passed, but actually the police water cannons had already arrived at the scene. And of course even more members of the public. At first the police tried to clear the entire area and block all entrances to keep the hostage situation inside the McDonald’s restaurant under control. However a growing crowd was surging towards the crime scene from the surrounding estates. Control over the situation had long ago been lost, and the voice on the radio acknowledged this as well. And that’s how things went on, right into late evening.

Florin was bound to the bed. Sometimes he wondered whether it was simply a penchant for sensationalism that caused him to blow out his original plans for the evening – a visit to the hotel sauna, a nocturnal walk, skinny hand-cut fries delivered by room service and a gin from the minibar – but then he said to himself: “Maybe it’s important that I face up to this right now, when my life reality is at maximum privilege.” So Florin continued to lie there – and consequently he heard the radio station announcing that no music would be played that night in solidarity with the protests against police violence, which had broken out all over the country by now. In its place was live reporting for as long “as necessary”.
At the mall, the protesters had now got hold of a water cannon. “The police are no longer in control of the situation,” said the voice on the radio. And then – while Florin’s heart rate continued to rise – the voice reported that more and more people, including children and pensioners, were gathering around this water cannon and starting to move off, clearly with the intention of relocating the protests to the city centre.

Meanwhile there was noticeably little to be heard from the McDonald’s, thought Florin. In fact: precisely nothing. The young man had never in his life been in a fight and would have described himself as a pacifist, but as he tried to deal with what he had heard, he was hit by waves of a desire to commit violence. In his mind’s eye, Florin saw a police officer lying on the ground, being kicked and punched by an enraged throng. And then: a shot. By the time the police decided to storm the McDonald’s with the help of gas grenades, plastic bullets and more, it was too late. The voice on the radio fell silent for at least a minute. Florin held his own breath, yet all he could hear in his hotel room was the sound of nasal breathing – coming from the radio.

As soon as the voice managed to speak again, it said: “The President has now declared a state of emergency. No one may leave their home.” Then it paused, and Florin listened to the silence again and suddenly realised that this state of affairs was terribly far removed from reality. Weren’t the people in the other hotel rooms aware of everything that had happened? Were they simply not interested in it? Suddenly he perceived this place, of which he had anticipated such peace and quiet, as a coffin that had closed above him. He could hardly catch his breath. He clutched his chest and felt a pain that was already familiar to him. The voice on the radio said: “Millions of people are still thought to be on the streets right now. There are rumours that the army will be mobilised in the next few hours. Police have lost control of the streets.” At this point, Florin gradually sat himself up, as though in slow motion.

He sits in bed for a moment. Then his legs swing over towards the edge. He breathes in, as deeply as he can, then he puts his feet on the floor and moved towards the heavy curtains. He reaches out and draws them simultaneously to the left and the right. He is now facing a window onto the street. Florin looks for a handle to open it, but finds none. Now his gaze is no longer on the window itself, but on what lies beyond it. There are people on the street. Lots of them. They seem to be shouting something. Some of them are almost running – but Florin can’t see where they are heading. While he stands watching like this for a moment, his breathing gradually becomes steadier without him noticing.

We want to come out of the hotel room now, we want to see more, feel more. We’ve seen enough in here. We look at Florin from behind one more time, at his unremarkable back. He braces his hands on the windowsill and we wonder what he might be thinking at that moment. Now his head’s moving, and then his torso. His gaze shifts towards us. Is he looking at us? Or is he looking at his shoes? Is it just projection, or can we see in his expression – which until now has always been reminiscent of a timid deer – a hitherto unknown decisiveness? We breathe in deeply – and out again. Then someone turns on the light.