When Billy Weaver steps off the train—which he has taken from London to Bath—it is nighttime and the weather is harsh: “The air was deadly cold and the wind was like a flat blade of ice on his cheeks.” Billy doesn’t know anybody in Bath so he asks the train porter for directions to a nearby hotel. The porter recommends a pub called “the Bell and Dragon,” which is within walking distance.
The description of the harsh weather in Bath creates a tense atmosphere. The imagery used to describe the cold wind foreshadows later events in the story, as “flat blade” and “deadly cold” evoke ideas of danger and violence. The precariousness of Billy’s situation is also emphasized through the fact that he is alone in an unfamiliar city, which hints at Dahl’s larger point about the dangers of urban anonymity.
Mr. Greenslade, from “the Head Office in London,” had told seventeen-year-old Billy that Bath was “a splendid town.” Billy looks up to “successful businessmen” like Mr. Greenslade, whom he admires for being “absolutely fantastically brisk all the time.”Having followed Mr. Greenslade’s advice, Billy plans to “report to the Branch Manager” as soon as he has found a place to stay.
Billy is enthusiastic and ambitious, but naïve. He trusts the adults in his life without question, and he assumes that briskness is admirable, simply because he has seen businessmen rushing around. Billy doesn’t pause to consider that briskness might be a negative quality, and instead, he blindly sets about imitating those he perceives to be successful. This moment also suggests a paradox of modern capitalism; Billy’s job makes him feel mature and connected to others, while in practice it puts him in an isolating situation that reveals his innocence.
As he walks towards the Bell and Dragon, Billy notices that the once-“swanky” houses that line each side of the street are a little old and decrepit. Even though it is dark, he can see that “the handsome white facades [are] cracked and blotchy from neglect.”
Here, Dahl reveals a conflict between appearance and reality. The setting becomes even more gloomy when, even through the darkness and miserable weather, Billy detects how rundown the neighborhood is.
In contrast, Billy notices a “brilliantly illuminated” window that has a sign inside advertising a Bed and Breakfast. Billy sees a “vase of yellow chrysanthemums, tall and beautiful,” and he walks a little closer to inspect the Bed and Breakfast. Through the window, Billy sees a wonderful picture of domesticity: he spots an inviting fire, comfortable furniture, “a pretty little” dog, a parrot, and a piano. He thinks to himself: “Animals were usually a good sign in a place like this.”
Through the juxtaposition between the melancholy evening and the well-lit Bed and Breakfast, Dahl emphasizes the superficial charm and appeal of the landlady’s residence. It’s likely that she has intentionally curated the pleasing appearance of the Bed and Breakfast in order to entice her visitors, an act that will later be revealed as an example of her deceptive nature. Additionally, this scene contains a number of hints at death that Billy blithely misses: yellow chrysanthemums are used as funeral flowers in parts of Europe, while the dog and parrot turn out to look so perfect because they are actually dead and stuffed.
Billy acknowledges that although the Bed and Breakfast “would be more comfortable than the Bell and Dragon,” he is “a tiny bit frightened” of the terrible food and “rapacious landladies” who usually run Bed and Breakfasts. He also wonders whether he might prefer getting to socialize with other people at the pub. Billy decides that he should at least go and look at the pub, in order to compare his options and make an informed decision.
While the Bell and Dragon pub represents community, the Bed and Breakfast represents privacy and anonymity. Billy’s desire to make an informed decision presents him as mature and sensible despite his youth, because he is mindful about being taken advantage of in his new city. His fear of “rapacious landladies” is also a subtle allusion to later events in the story.
As Billy turns to leave, the Bed and Breakfast sign seems to grip him and look back towards him “like a large black eye.” Billy feels a strange energy keeping him there, “forcing him to stay where he was and not to walk away from that house.”
Billy’s logical and prudent decision is defeated by an overwhelming and seemingly mystical force, which draws him to the Bed and Breakfast. It is not clear whether Billy is under the spell of some dark magic, or whether his curiosity has just got the better of him, but either way, it’s notable that the sign is the deciding factor that gets Billy to go inside. Here, Dahl seems to suggest that advertising (which could symbolize urban capitalism) poses a very real threat to innocent people.
Before he knows what’s happening, Billy finds himself moving towards the Bed and Breakfast and ringing the doorbell. Suddenly, the door swings open, and the landlady, “about forty-five or fifty years old,” appears with a bright smile. She “popped” up out of nowhere, making Billy jump in surprise.
Here, Billy’s compulsion to enter the house is a metaphor for curiosity and humanity’s dark, macabre desire to experience frightening things. Note that Billy chooses the Bed and Breakfast despite being frightened of it and knowing that the choice isn’t wise, which shows how he embodies both the naivety of childhood and the “briskness” of adulthood.
The kind-looking landlady invites Billy inside, and he finds “the desire to follow after her […] extraordinarily strong.” The landlady offers him a very reasonable price for a room and discusses his breakfast options for the morning. Billy’s first impressions of her are positive, and he thinks to himself: “She looked exactly like the mother of one's best school-friend welcoming one into the house to stay for the Christmas holidays.”
The landlady intentionally deceives Billy here, creating an outward appearance that makes him feel at home, when in fact he is in grave danger. Although he fears “rapacious landladies,” Billy follows his host anyway, noticing how motherly she looks. In this context, the landlady stands in as a mother figure, and seventeen-year-old Billy succumbs to his desires to be guided by a nurturing adult. Dahl seems to suggest that environments of anonymity are especially dangerous to innocents like Billy, who are so desperate for personal connection that they rely on untrustworthy people.
Billy notices that there are no other hats or coats in the hallway, and the landlady explains that she is a fussy host and chooses her guests carefully. It strikes Billy that she is “slightly dotty” but he decides that her cheap prices are well worth it. As they climb the stairs towards Billy’s new bedroom, the landlady looks his body up and down and tells him that he is “exactly right.”
Once Billy is inside of the Bed and Breakfast, there are numerous warning signs to suggest that things might not be as good as they seem. The lack of other guests and the way that the landlady objectifies and sexualizes Billy when inspecting his body are clear indications that this isn’t a safe place to stay. However, although Billy notices several oddities about the landlady and her home, he is too innocent to fear that he might be in genuine danger, and the landlady’s “dotty” appearance gives him false confidence in her.
The landlady shows Billy around the “small but charming front bedroom.” On the way, she inexplicably calls him Mr. Perkins, and he corrects her that he’s actually Mr. Weaver. She has gone to great lengths to make it cozy and comfortable and offers Billy some supper. When he declines, explaining that he needs an early night, she asks him to sign the guest book. She leaves the room hurriedly, before Billy has a chance to refuse.
At this point in the story, it is obvious to the reader that there is something suspicious about the landlady, even though she goes out of her way to seem kind. She insists that Billy head downstairs that night to sign the guest book, even though he could just do it in the morning.
To make sense of the landlady’s strange behavior, Billy hypothesizes: “She had probably lost a son in the war […] and had never gotten over it.” Billy believes that she is a “kind and generous soul” and he feels very pleased with himself for finding such wonderful lodgings.
Billy is very trusting and quick to give the landlady the benefit of the doubt, to the point of irony; it’s very clear to the reader that something is wrong, but Billy persists in believing that someone so gentle could never cause him harm. Dahl also makes reference to the communities and generations traumatized in the aftermath of the World Wars when Billy assumes that the landlady has “lost a son in the war.” This presents her as a lonely or grief-stricken older lady, thus creating sympathy for her even though her behavior appears sinister (and also offers a potential motive for her behavior when it is revealed — that the loss of a son drives her to prize innocence and youth in an unhealthy way). Additionally, it hints at a loss of innocence that goes far beyond Billy himself, as it brings to mind the traumatic way that war can force young people into sudden maturity.
As he signs the visitor’s book, Billy notices that there have only been two previous entries. The first name—Christopher Mulholland—“rings a bell,” and Billy begins to wonder where he has heard it, thinking maybe he saw it in the newspaper. While he racks his brain, it occurs to Billy that he is also familiar with the other name written there: Gregory W. Temple.
The guest book highlights exactly how isolated Billy is at this point; not only are there no other current guests, but there aren’t even any recent guests who have shared this same experience. That Billy isn’t at all suspicious of this fact also reinforces how naïve he is.
At this moment, the landlady appears with “a large silver tea-tray in her hands.” Billy asks her if Christopher and Gregory were famous athletes, which would explain why their names sound familiar. She says no, but tells Billy that both boys were “tall and young and handsome,” and she seems very fond of them.
The reader learns that the previous guests were both young, just like Billy. Bearing in mind that the landlady previously explained that she was fussy when selecting her guests, it seems that perhaps she only accepts guests who are “tall and young and handsome.” It seems, then, that Billy’s youthful innocence will be a liability, while the landlady’s maturity may be more predatory than nurturing.
Billy begins asking the landlady questions about her Christopher Mulholland and Gregory Temple in order to try and work out why he recognizes their names. He realizes that for some reason, he keeps associating the names with one another, “[a]s though they were both famous for the same sort of thing,” citing Churchill and Roosevelt as an example. As he gets closer and closer to determining the answer, he realizes with surprise that Christopher’s visit was two years previously, and Gregory’s happened three years ago. Meanwhile, the landlady continues preparing the tea and biscuits, interrupting Billy and evading his enquires. As she sets the tray down, Billy notices her “small, white, quickly moving hands, and red finger-nails.” Oddly, she also calls him by the wrong name again.
The mystery surrounding the boys’ names becomes more and more tantalizing, and it is suspicious that the landlady seems uninterested in helping Billy determine how he knows of her previous guests. Mysteriously, the description of her “quickly moving hands” is incongruent with previous descriptions that have portrayed the landlady as “potty” and dithering.
Billy is sure that he has heard the boys’ names in the newspapers, and he is determined to find out why. He begins to remember the name “Christopher Mulholland” in the context of a news story he read about a schoolboy who went missing during a walking tour. The landlady denies the link, explaining “Oh no, my dear, that can’t possibly be right because my Mr. Mulholland was certainly not an Eton schoolboy.” Changing the subject and diverting Billy’s attention away from Christopher, the landlady invites Billy to sit with her by the “lovely fire” and hands him a cup of tea.
The reference to the newspapers brings the thematic conflict between community and isolation into focus. The newspaper stories about Christopher Mulholland represent society, community, and shared values, particularly because there seems to have been a collective effort to search for and find the missing schoolboy. The Bed and Breakfast, in contrast, represents isolation and anonymity. Billy is vulnerable within the Bed and Breakfast because he is alone in an unfamiliar city, and nobody knows he is there.
While sipping their tea in silence, Billy is aware of a “peculiar smell that seemed to emanate directly” from the landlady. Billy was sure that the smell reminded him of something, but isn’t sure what: “Pickled walnuts? New leather? Or was it the corridors of a hospital?” As he sips his tea, Billy becomes increasingly certain that he had read the two boys’ names not just in the newspaper, but in the newspaper headlines.
The description of the smell, which Billy believes is coming from the landlady, contributes to the depiction of her as old and dithering. He associates her with “the corridors of a hospital,” which immediately positions her as elderly and fragile. Rather than suspect malice from the landlady, then, the peculiar smell only serves to reinforce his perception of her as harmless—a perception which will soon prove to be false.
As the landlady speaks fondly about Mr. Mulholland, Billy asks if the guest checked out only recently. Confused, the landlady answers that Mr. Mulholland never left. In fact, both he and Mr. Temple are “on the fourth floor, both of them together.”
The landlady’s assertion that Mr. Mulholland and Mr. Temple are upstairs contradicts the appearance that Billy is the only guest staying at this Bed and Breakfast. This new information is confusing and strange, and if this Mr. Mulholland is the same as the Christopher Mulholland who Billy read about in the newspapers, it suggests that the landlady is somehow responsible for his mysterious disappearance. This moment also introduces a new tension between isolation and shared experience; Mr. Mulholland and Mr. Temple are technically together, but they still seem to be isolated from the rest of the world.
As Billy sets his teacup down gingerly, the landlady asks him how old he is. She seems very pleased when he tells her that he is seventeen, and she cries out, saying: “Oh, it’s the perfect age!” She explains that Christopher was the same age when she met him, and that Gregory was a little older. She also comments that Billy has lovely teeth, though he says that they’re actually not as nice as they look; he has lots of fillings. Billy is a little confused and surprised when the landlady explains how “there wasn’t a blemish on [Gregory’s] body” and that “his skin was just like a baby’s.”
Billy’s comment that his teeth aren’t actually as nice as they look is a subtle reminder that appearances often mask incongruous realities. Meanwhile, the landlady’s apparent preoccupation with youth becomes even more bizarre when she celebrates the fact that Gregory had smooth and baby-like skin. Her remark is not only eerie, but puzzlingly, she describes Gregory using the past tense. Given that the landlady has just explained that Gregory is still in the Bed and Breakfast, it seems like it would be more appropriate to continue describing him in the present tense.
Changing the subject, Billy comments that the stuffed parrot had “completely fooled” him when he first arrived, saying: “I could have sworn it was alive.” The landlady then reveals that the dachshund is also dead. Billy is amazed by how life-like the creatures are, and upon learning that the landlady had stuffed them herself, he feels a “deep admiration at the little woman beside him on the sofa.” Billy is very impressed with the landlady’s skill for such a difficult hobby, but she modestly ignores his compliment, saying: “I stuff all my little pets myself when they pass away.”
When Billy first spotted the parrot and dog through the window of the Bed and Breakfast, he was sure that the pets were “a good sign” and meant that he would be in safe hands. Ironically, here he learns that both the animals are dead and had deceived him completely. Meanwhile, it becomes clear to the reader that the landlady has most likely stuffed Christopher and Gregory as well, which explains why they are still upstairs even as she refers to them in the past tense. This revelation indicates that the landlady has killed the young men for the express purpose of preserving their innocence. Through this horrific strategy, Dahl suggests that all attempts to preserve purity are similarly unnatural and misguided; everyone has to grow up, even though doing so is painful.
Billy realizes that the tea tastes “faintly of bitter almonds,” and his curiosity about the landlady’s previous guests returns. The landlady checks with Billy that he has signed the guest book. When he affirms that he has, she says it will be helpful for her “later on,” explaining that if she ever forgets his name, she can just look in the book, as she frequently does with “Mr. Mulholland and Mr. … Mr. …” She trails off, and Billy reminds her that the guest was Gregory Temple. When Billy asks her if there have “been any other guests here except them in the last two or three years,” she replies: “No, my dear…Only you.”
It becomes apparent that Billy is in grave danger. The smell that he previously believed was coming from the landlady is actually coming from his tea, which she has poisoned—probably with cyanide—which would explain the almond-like smell. It is unclear whether the landlady is intentionally performing the role of a “forgetful old lady, or whether she genuinely can’t remember Gregory’s name. Either way, the landlady has selected Billy carefully as her latest victim, and presumably plans to stuff him too. This final turn of events underscores how even something completely normal and comforting, like tea, can mask a terrifying reality.