Translated from the Polish by Teresa Halikowska-Smith

 

The Hotel Capital

is only for the rich. For them there are porters in uniforms, long-legged, tailcoated waiters with Spanish accents; for them the silent lifts with mirrors on all sides; for them the brass door handles which must never be allowed to show any fingerprints, the door handles which are for this reason polished twice a day by the petite Yugoslav woman; for them the carpeted stairs to be used only in case they should be assailed by the claustrophobia of the lift; for them huge sofas, heavy quilted bedspreads, breakfasts in bed, air conditioning, towels whiter than snow, soaps and beautifully scented shampoos, toilet seats of real oak, new magazines every morning. It is for them that God created Angelo of Soiled Linen and Zapata of Special Orders, for them the chambermaids in white and pink uniforms, scurrying along the corridors, myself among them. But perhaps to say ‘myself’ is already to say too much; not much of myself is left when, in the little service room at the end of the corridor, I put on a striped apron while, at the same time, taking off my own colours, my body smell, my favourite earrings, my warpaint make-up and high-heeled shoes. At the same time I take off my exotic language, my strange name, my sense of humour, my face lines, my taste for food not appreciated here, my memory of small events—and I stand naked in this pink and white uniform as if emerging from the sea mist. And, from this moment on,

The whole of the second floor of the hotel is mine

every weekend, that is. I start here at eight o’clock and I don’t have to hurry since, at eight o’clock, all the rich people are still asleep. The hotel snuggles them inside, rocking them gently, as if it were a big seashell in the world’s depths and they the precious pearls inside it. In the distance the traffic awakens and the underground train makes the grass tremble gently at its tips. A cool shadow lingers in the hotel’s yard.

I come in through the back door and immediately I become aware of strange intermingled smells of cleaning materials, freshly laundered linen and the walls sweating with the excessive turnover of people. The poky little lift stops in front of me, ready for service. I press the button for the fourth floor and proceed to my supervisor, Miss Lang, to collect my orders for the day. Every time, somewhere halfway between the second and third floors, I am touched by a panicky sensation lest the lift should stop and I should stay here forever, enclosed like a bacterium inside the body of the Hotel Capital. And once the hotel awakens, it will set to work, unhurriedly digesting me, it will even get at my thoughts and absorb all that is left of me, it will feed on me before I noiselessly disappear. But the lift mercifully lets me out.

Miss Lang sits behind her desk, with her spectacles balancing on the tip of her nose. She looks just like what the queen of all chambermaids, the resident of all eight floors, the dispenser of hundreds of bed sheets and pillowcases, the chamberlain of carpets and lifts, the equerry of brushes and vacuum cleaners, should look like. She eyes me from behind her spectacles and takes out a card prepared especially for me, on which, laid out neatly in rows and columns, a plan of the whole second floor is drawn, indicating the status of each room. Miss Lang does not notice guests in the hotel. Perhaps she considers them to be the concern of the higher management, difficult as it is to imagine someone higher, more distinguished than Miss Lang.

For her, the hotel is probably a perfect structure, a living, if inert, being which we have to take care of. Sure enough, people flow and fly through it, warm its beds, drink water from its brass nipples. But they pass on, go away. We and the hotel remain. That is why Miss Lang describes the rooms to me as if they were haunted places—always in the passive tense, as being occupied or dirty or free for the last few days. As she does this, she looks resentfully at my own clothing, at the traces of my too hurriedly applied make-up. And almost straight away I am walking along the corridor with a note in Miss Lang’s beautiful, slightly Victorian handwriting, planning the strategy of how best to use my strength.

It is then that, unconsciously, I cross from the domestic part of the building to the Guests’ Quarters. I can tell this by the smell—I only have to lift my head to recognize it. Sometimes I score ten out of ten: the scent is that of Armani, or Lagerfeld for Men, or of the seductively elegant Boucheron. I recognize these scents from the free samples in Vogue magazine. I am familiar with the look of their containers. I also catch the scent of powder, of anti-wrinkle cream, of silk, of crocodile skin, of Campari spilled over the bedding, of Caprice cigarettes for subtle brunettes. This, to me, is the specific smell of the second floor. Or rather, not the complete smell, but only the first layer of that special smell of the second floor which I recognize instantly the way one recognizes an old friend, while on my way to the changing room where

A transformation

takes place. Clad in the pink and white uniform, I find myself viewing the corridor with different eyes. I no longer trace the scents, I cease to be drawn by my own reflection in the brass door handles, nor do I listen for the sound of my own steps. What I am singularly interested in now are the numbered rectangles of doors in the corridor’s vista. Behind each of these eight rectangles there is a room—the four-cornered, prostituted space which every few days gives itself to someone else. The windows of four of the rooms look on to the street where a bearded fellow in Scottish attire stands playing his bagpipes.

I suspect he is not a genuine Scot. He exhibits too much enthusiasm. Next to him—a hat and a coin meant to attract offerings.

The next four rooms, whose windows overlook the yard, are not as sunny and seem to be permanently bathed in shadow. All eight rooms are lodged in my brain, even before I can see them. My eyes search out the door handles. Some of them have DO NOT DISTURB notices attached to them. I am pleased at this as it is not in my interest to disturb either the rooms or the people in them, and I prefer that they do not disturb me as I contemplate my sole possession of the second floor. Occasionally, a notice declares the room is READY TO BE SERVICED. This notice puts me in a state of alertness. There is also a third kind of information—that supplied by the absence of any notice. This energizes me, makes me slightly anxious. It switches on my chambermaid’s mind which until then has remained inactive. Sometimes, when the stillness behind such a door is too palpable, I have to put my ear to it and listen intently, and even peep through the keyhole. I prefer this to suddenly finding myself inside with an armful of towels and stumbling upon an alarmed guest covering his nakedness or, even worse, finding a guest so deep in helpless sleep that he scarcely seems to be there. That is why I obey the notices on the doors: they are visas granting me entry into a miniature world,

The world of numbers

Room number 200 is empty, the bed rumpled, a few bits of debris and a bitter smell of someone’s hastiness, of their turning over in bed, of their feverish packing. This somebody must have left early in the morning, probably had to rush to the airport or maybe to a railway station. My job consists of removing the traces of this person’s presence from the bed, the carpet, the wardrobes, the cabinet, the bathroom, the wallpaper, the ashtrays and finally the air itself. This is not at all easy. It’s not enough just to clean. The vestiges of the personality left behind by the previous occupant have to be overcome by my own impersonality. This is what Transformation is all about. It is not enough to wipe away with a piece of cloth the traces of the reflection of that face in the mirror, but the mirror has to be filled with my pink and white facelessness. That smell left behind by distraction and haste has to be stifled by my complete absence of smell. This is what I am here for, as someone in an official capacity who is therefore a non-person. And this is what I do. It is always hardest with women. Women leave behind more traces and I don’t mean simply that they forget their knick-knacks. They instinctively try to remake hotel rooms into ersatz homes. They root wherever they can, like seeds carried on the wind. In the hotel wardrobes they hang some of their deep-seated longings, in the bathrooms they shamelessly divest themselves of their desires and deprivations. Light-heartedly they leave the imprint of their lips on glasses and cigarette butts, as well as their hair in the bath. On the floor they sprinkle talcum powder which traitorously reveals the mystery of their footprints. Some of them do not wipe off their make-up before going to bed and then the pillowcases, like Veronica’s veil, retain the image of their faces. They never leave tips, however. For this the self-assurance of men is needed. Men tend to view the world more as a marketplace than a theatre. They prefer to pay for everything, even in advance. It is only when they pay that they feel free.

The next room is

Number 224, occupied by a Japanese couple

They have already been here for some time and I feel quite at home in their room. They get up very early, probably in order to go on an infinite round of visits to museums, galleries and shops; gliding gently and quietly through the streets and giving up their seats in the underground train, they multiply the city in their photographs. Their room is an elegant double room. It gives the impression of not being occupied at all. There are no objects left by mistake on the chest of drawers under the mirror. They use neither TV nor radio; there are no fingerprints on the brass switches. There is no water in the bath, no steam on the mirror, no fluff on the carpet. The pillows do not retain the shapes of their heads. No black hair sticks to my uniform. And, what is alarming, they have left behind no scents. The only scent is that of the Hotel Capital itself. By the bed, I can see two pairs of neat, clean sandals tidily arranged, momentarily released from their service to the feet. One pair is bigger than the other. A guidebook, the bible of every tourist, rests on the cabinet, and in the bathroom there are toiletries—functional, discreet. All I have to do is to remake the bed and, in doing so, I create more disorder than they would make in a month.

I feel moved while cleaning here, amazed by this mode of being which seems like not being at all. I sit on the edge of the bed, absorbing this absence of theirs. It touches me that the Japanese always leave a small tip—a few coins neatly stacked on the pillow—which I am obliged to take. This is a kind of letter, a newsletter; a kind of correspondence between us. They give me this tip as if they were apologizing for engaging so little with me themselves; the tip is for the absence of noise, for not being part of the chaos around them. They are concerned that this may disappoint or anger me. This small tip is the expression of their gratitude that I allow them to be themselves. I try to appreciate this, their way of meeting me—when I make their bed, I do it with love.

I plump up the pillows, I caress the sheets they are unable to crumple—it is as if their slender bodies were less material than the bodies of others.

I do it slowly, savouring it, feeling that I am giving of myself. I dissolve myself in giving, I forget myself, I caress their room, I touch things with tenderness. And they quite possibly sense this caress on their skins as they travel on the underground to yet another museum, on yet another excursion into the unrecognizable city. For a moment they hold in their heads the image of the hotel room; they are overcome with an unspecified longing, a sudden desire to go back, but there is no trace of me in that image. My love, which they may well call sympathy, has no face, no body under the pink and white uniform. So when they leave the tip it is not for me but for the room, for its silent continuance in the world, for its constancy amid the inexplicable inconstancy. The two coins left on the pillow preserve the illusion that such rooms exist even when nobody looks at them. The two coins dispel our only essential fear—that the world exists only in the act of seeing and there is nothing beyond this. And so I sit and smell the coolness and emptiness of this room, full of respect for the Japanese couple known to me only from the immaterial shape of the footprints left in the abandoned sandals.

I must now take my leave of this small temple. I do it quietly, as if sighing, and go downstairs on to the landing since by now it is

Time for tea

The white and pink princesses of other floors are already sitting on the stairs, biting into their buttered toast and drinking tea. Next to me Maria who has the looks of a native American, a little further, Angelo of the Soiled Linen and Pedro of the Clean, probably as he is so serious. He has a pepper-and-salt beard and thick black hair. He could be a missionary, or a monk who has just paused for a moment on his spiritual journey. He is reading Lord of the Flies; some words he underlines with a pencil, the others he sips with his coffee.

‘Pedro, what is your native tongue?’ I ask.

He lifts his head from the book, hums and haws as if woken from a dream. It is apparent that he is translating my question in his head into that tongue of his. You can tell from his temporary absence. He must have time to retreat into himself, look around, name this rhythm of his, define it in a word, translate it and finally say:

‘It is Castellano.’

Suddenly I feel intimidated.

‘So where is this Castile?’ asks Ana, an Italian girl.

‘Castile—Bastille,’ pronounces Wesna, a beautiful Yugoslav girl, philosophically.

Pedro draws a shape with a pencil and, tripping over his words, reaches back to the times of old, when—for some reason—people were criss-crossing the huge land masses which today we call Europe and Asia. During their wanderings they mixed and settled and then moved on again, carrying their languages like banners. They formed great families, although they did not know each other; only the words were permanent. We light cigarettes while Pedro draws graphs, proves similarities, pulls out the roots from words as if stoning cherries. For those who understand this lecture, it slowly becomes apparent that all of us sitting on these stairs, drinking coffee and eating toast, spoke the same language long ago. Well, perhaps not everybody. I do not dare to ask about my own language; also Myrra, who comes from Nigeria, pretends not to understand. When Pedro stretches a dark, swirling cloud above our heads, we are all trying to squeeze underneath.

‘It is like the Tower of Babel,’ Angelo sums up.

‘You could say that,’ the Castilan Pedro nods, sadly.

But here is Malgosia. She rushes in late as usual. She is always short of time, always lagging behind. Malgosia is one of my own; she speaks the same language, so her fresh blushing face appears to me joyfully close. I pour her tea and butter her toast.

‘Cze??,’ she rustles, and this becomes a signal for the conversation to split into all the possible languages.

And from this moment on, all the white and pink ladies hum in their own tongues; words rattle like wooden building blocks, rolling down the stairs to the kitchen, laundry, linen storerooms. You can hear the foundations of the Capital vibrating in sympathy.

Unfortunately, the break is over and we have to go back to our respective floors where the remaining rooms are awaiting us. We scatter, still chattering, but soon the long corridors impose their silence on us. And so it will remain. Silence—the virtue of chambermaids in all the hotels of the world.

Room 226 looks as if it has only just been occupied. Luggage still unpacked, newspaper untouched. The man (judging by the men’s cosmetics in the bathroom) is probably an Arab (Arabic labels on the suitcase, an Arabic book). And almost instantly, a thought: what is it to me where this next guest in the hotel comes from and what he’s doing here? I encounter only his belongings. A person is merely the reason why these things have found their way here, just a figure which relocates them in space and time. In fact, we are all transitory inhabitants of things as trivial as clothes and as big as the Capital. This Arab and the Japanese, myself and even Miss Lang. Nothing has changed since the times referred to by Pedro. Hotels and luggage might look different, but the journey is the same.

There is not much to do in the room. The guest must have arrived at night, he didn’t even go to bed. He’s probably gone out on business and will unpack on his return. Or he’ll continue on his journey, allowing himself to be carried along by the itinerary on which his belongings take him. In the bathroom I observe with satisfaction that he hasn’t washed and that instead of toilet paper he used face tissues.

He must have been nervous—or careless, which comes to the same thing. He must have suddenly felt out of place when the taxi brought him from the airport at night. In such circumstances, a sudden surge of desire assails one. Nothing tames the world as surely as sex. Perhaps he slipped out in search of women’s or men’s bodies, those fragile vessels which are capable of taking one painlessly through any anxiety, any fear.

Room 227 is exactly the same as 226. The same single room. But here the guest has been staying for longer. I would not be aware of this if it wasn’t for the familiar smell of cigarettes, alcohol and disorder. The mess horrifies me. Half-empty glasses everywhere, cigarette ash, spilt juice, the waste paper bin overflowing with vodka, tonic, cognac bottles. The smell of a vicious circle, of hopelessness. I open the window, I switch on the air conditioning but this only deepens the atmosphere of a no-hope situation, sharpens the contrast between the fresh and healthy and the stuffy and sickly. This fellow (dozens of ties thrown over the wardrobe door) is different from the rest of the guests. Not only because he drinks and makes a mess, but because he forgets himself. He does not respect the limits of what it is permissible to communicate through one’s belongings. He has no care for appearances. He pours all his inner disorder into the hands of someone like me. I feel like a nurse and, in a way, I like it. I dress the bed wounded by the night’s sleeplessness, I wash the scars of the juices spilled over the table top, I draw out the bottles from the room’s body as if I were pulling out thorns. Even vacuuming is like cleaning wounds. Carefully, I arrange in the armchair the new and expensive toys, probably bought only yesterday—a cover-up of painful guilt. This fellow must have stood there before the mirror for a long time, trying out different ties or perhaps even suits, but each change filled him with disgust. After which he went to the bathroom—there is an unfinished drink on the side of the washbasin. He was helpless and clumsy, he spilled shampoo on the floor and tried to wipe it up with a towel. I will forgive him this. I rub out the stains, I arrange his cosmetics. I know he is terrified of old age. Here is a wrinkle cream, powder, eau de cologne of the best quality. There is also rouge and an eye pencil. Each morning, terrified by the unfamiliarity of his face, he must stand before the mirror and with trembling hands try to restore to it its familiar looks. He falters, cannot see clearly, draws closer to the mirror, smearing it with his fingers. He pours out the shampoo, swears, attempts to clean it up, and then swears in English, French or German. He is all ready to confront the world as he is, but then he catches sight of himself in the mirror, changes his mind, returns and finishes the job. The make-up fluid covers the lines of disappointment round his lips, and the bags under his eyes which betray his sleeplessness, and the dark spots on his chin which reveal pill taking. A touch of eyeshadow masks the redness of his eyes. In the end he manages to take his leave, and, when he returns, he should find the bathroom free of any sign of his downfall. It is up to me to dispense forgiveness. It even occurs to me to leave him a note with the words: ‘I forgive you’. He would accept these words as if they were a message from Providence itself and he would return to where his children are awaiting the soft toys, where his ties are neatly stacked in the wardrobe, where—with a face swollen from drink, a glass in hand—one can go out on to a terrace and bellow to the whole world: ‘Fuck it!’.

But it’s reality which is Providence and therefore everything that happens is likely to have a reason. I leave the room to its forever provisional occupant.

In the corridor I pass Angelo carrying sacks of dirty linen. We smile. I open the door to room number 223 and at a glance I am sure that the people in this room are

Young Americans

None of us relishes the thought of cleaning the rooms in which young Americans lodge. This is not just prejudice. We have nothing against America, we even admire it and long for it although many of us have never set foot in the place. But young Americans who alight at the Capital make a thoughtless, stupid mess in which there is no rhyme or reason. It is a chaotic kind of untidiness and dealing with it gives you no satisfaction. In fact you can’t ever get rid of it; even after you have arranged everything neatly and in order, after you have removed all the stains and traces of mud, after you have smoothed all the bed covers and pillows, after you have let out the whirling smells, this mess will disappear only momentarily, or rather it will hide somewhere underneath and wait there for the return of its owners. It will awake at the very sound of the key turning in the lock and immediately hurl itself into the room.

It is only children who can create such a mess: a half-peeled orange on the bed, bathroom tumblers filled with fruit juice, a tube of toothpaste squashed on the carpet. Scraps of paper arranged like a collection, clothes tags from the best shops, pillows stuffed into the wardrobe, a hotel pencil broken in half, the contents of a suitcase spilled over an armchair, addressed postcards with no greetings on them, the TV on, the curtains flung open, socks and underwear drying on the air conditioning, cigarettes scattered around, ashtrays overflowing with watermelon seeds. The room in which the Americans live is compromised, stripped of all dignity, pseudo-friendly. That it should be this lovely pink and beige room number 223 which is despoiled in this way! It looks like a serious old gentleman dressed up as a clown.

When I enter it, I feel pain. I stand still for a while contemplating the scale of this disaster. The room looks like a minor battlefield. The expensive silk dresses thrown carelessly over the arms of the chair, the scent of luxury perfumes, of money, of physical prowess, of a six-footer—the smell of carelessly ignoring the order which is the integral nature of things. All this frenetic activity, which in its inattentiveness to the present fails to comprehend that contained in it is the germ of the sacred future, frightens me. It is like an assault mounted against room number 223. In this assault, the room stands for something stable, graspable, rooted in the present and unchangeable, and in this assault I take the side of the room.

Slowly and systematically, I set about tidying up, taking care not to touch Private Things. Perhaps they are accustomed to not being in their rightful places.

Time flows in leaps and bounds and I feel more and more anxious. The TV buzzes, CNN hurls news at me from the whole buzzing world, and the world reassures CNN that it exists somewhere and is always full of young Americans. My anxiety is growing, my gestures become more sweeping and exhausting, I begin to rush, keep looking at my watch—I am emerging from the ‘here and now’ and just beginning to place one foot in the moment ‘later’. I swear to myself, ‘Shit!’. I sing, Yankee Doodle Went to Town. I leave a damp cloth on the wooden table top. This is serious negligence, as the wood gets stained from the damp. The air of disorder must be catching. I have to escape to the bathroom where I cannot be pursued by all this buzz, and where, after a while, after I’ve finished picking up the towels, the flannels, the soaps and the containers strewn about the floor, after I’ve shut the door to the bathroom and concentrated on the details, stillness finally descends.

The bathroom is the bottom line of the room, the underside of life. After having a bath, we leave hair in the bathtub, dirt from our skin settles on its sides. The waste paper basket is full of used tampons, tissues and cotton wool pads. Here is a shaver for the legs, there a little mirror useful for squeezing out blackheads and applying the make-up which serves as a cover-up for all the indecisions. Here is the talcum powder for the feet, the gadget for making an enema, and a cosmetic bag stuffed with contraceptives. The bathroom cannot hide this other side of life. I clean around roughly, as if afraid of destroying these relics of the transitoriness of the people who live here. Perhaps they should be aware of it. Perhaps they did not have a chance to see it on TV, nor read about it in magazines which mix everything together, one thing on top of another like in a hamburger; perhaps they have not learned about it at school, they did not see it in the movies, Armstrong did not find it on the moon. So they have not yet understood that, with every passing moment, we disintegrate. That amidst life, we die. They as much as I.

This thought brings me closer to them, to these rich, energetic Americans, so different from me. They have their unimaginable country, a different rhythm of life, an orange juice for breakfast every day. Two thousand years ago, they would be Romans and I would be an inhabitant of some distant province of the Empire, Gaul perhaps, or Palestine. But both they and I have bodies made of clay, or is it ash, the body which loses hair, which ages and wrinkles, and leaves a deposit of dirt on the smooth sides of the bath. When I put out clean towels and hang up new bathrobes, I have such a strong feeling of the shared insignificance of our existence, that I freeze, motionless, as when I found an old teddy bear worn from care and dressed in babies’ clothes in the bed of a rich and important woman, who came here to attend a high-powered scientific conference. Or when the bedding in the suite of some VIP is damp with sweat. It is Fear, this bony chambermaid, which makes their beds. Thank God, it exists, fear. Without it, they would be like the gods of old—strong, confident, proud and stupid. And now, when they lie in their beds, after days filled up with business affairs, money, excursions, shopping, important meetings, and they cannot go to sleep, when they survey some complicated pattern on the wallpaper, their tired eyes begin to spot a flaw, a hole, an irrelevance in that rhythmical pattern. They begin to notice in it some scratch, some discolouring, the kind of dirt which cannot easily be wiped off, washed out. In such moments, carpets go bald like women when they get ill, and the freshness of a muslin curtain reveals a hole burned by a cigarette. The satin of the pillows comes adrift at the seams, rust is creeping on to the door handles and locks. The edges of the furniture become blunted, the tassels of the curtains get tangled. The travelling rug loses its fluffiness and becomes matted. There is a musty smell of dust. I can guess just what those people do then. They get up, shake their heads and have a stiff drink or swallow a sleeping tablet. Lying there with their eyes shut, they count sheep until sleep rescues their threatened thoughts. In the morning, that fleeting moment in the night appears to them unreal and barely distinguishable from a nightmare. Don’t we all suffer from them occasionally?

I lean against the bathroom door. The work is finished. I feel like having a cigarette.

Now the choice is between rooms number 228 and 229. I settle on 229, as its Kabbalistic sum of numbers equals

Thirteen

This is a number of excess and trickery, and so is this room. Room 229 possesses special qualities. It entices, makes promises, brings surprises. In itself it seems like any other room—on the right-hand side a bathroom; a short passageway; and then all the rest: the bed covered with a brown counterpane, wallpaper in greyish shades, flowery curtains, a chest of drawers and a mirror. And yet it gives off the impression of being emptier than all the others. I can hear my own breath, I see my hands swollen from the water, the mirror gives back my reflection in a less coincidental fashion. Whenever I walk into this room, I stiffen. Last week there was a couple of lovers here, perhaps a newly married couple. They rumpled the bed, threw around the towels, spilled the shampoo. What was left after them were yellow stains on the sheet and a huge bouquet of flowers, the witness of vows of love I was sorry to have to throw away. It is harder to bring this room into a state of readiness to receive guests as it has its individual face. It receives people with consideration. I suspect that one night spent here is enough to get them trapped, to bring unquiet dreams, to hold them a little longer, to bring out desires and overturn carefully laid plans. A fortnight ago, the occupants forgot to turn off the taps in the bathroom. The water flooded into the corridor, submerged the fluffy carpets, seeped up into the gilded wallpaper. The guests, terrified, stood there wrapped in blankets, while the staff were running around with torches. ‘It’s nothing! It’s nothing!’ Zapata kept repeating as he wrung out the wet cloths, but his face communicated a different message—that something terrible had happened—stupid, thoughtless people had raised their hands against the Hotel Capital.

And it is always in room number 229 that something like this happens.

This room is different, that’s for sure. I think that the people in Reception know that, and they allow it to stay unoccupied more often than the others. They direct the traffic to the lower-numbered rooms, at the nearer end of the corridor, closer to the lift, the stairs, nearer to the world.

When the room stands empty all I do is to check that everything is in order, that dust has not accumulated on the furniture, that the air conditioning works. I do it particularly carefully. I smooth the counterpane, I run my finger along the top of the wall panelling, I air the room and then I sit for a moment in an armchair and listen to my own slightly agitated breathing. The room encloses me within itself, cradles me. It is a most tender if non-physical caress, this embrace which only an enclosed space can give you. At such moments I feel distinctly that my body exists and is contained fully in the pink and white uniform. I am conscious of the feel of the collar on my neck and the coolness of the zip between my breasts. I feel how tightly the ties of my apron hug my waist. I am aware of my skin, conscious that it’s alive and breathing, that it has its own scent, and I can feel my hair where it touches my ears. I like then to get up and look at myself in the mirror which never spares me a surprise. Is this me? Really me? I touch my face, tighten the skin on my cheeks, blink my eyes, pull my hair tighter with a grip. This is how I see myself in dreams—always in the mirror, always a different face.

I stand there and long to immerse myself in the immaculately clean bathtub, then dry myself with all these white towels and afterwards stretch on the brown counterpane and listen quietly to our breathing—my own and the room’s, the room’s and my own.

But today room 229 is occupied and there is a note on the door handle saying that it is ready for service. I turn my key and go in, pulling my cleaning kit behind me. And I freeze in alarm, since the room is not empty. At the desk a man is sitting bent over his electronic notebook. I regain my voice, apologize and make as if to leave, thinking there must be some mistake, he has put out the wrong sign. He, however, apologizes in turn and invites me in, asking me not to take any notice of him.

It does happen from time to time. I heartily dislike it, though. It means I must hurry and do what I have to do under the gaze of the guest. Now the guest becomes a host and myself a guest. The established order is inverted. My cleaning is no longer omnipotent, it becomes emptied of meaning. The rooms are not meant to contain a cleaner and a guest—we are in each other’s way. I must quickly and nimbly make a double bed, which means I have to move it away from the wall. There’s not much space to do this. The fellow at his computer is a sufficient obstacle to the efficient carrying out of that task. I already know that I don’t like him. He is shockingly alive.

First I take off the sheet and the four pillowcases. I put on the clean undersheet. To smooth it out I have to go round to the other side of the pulled-out bed. I feel the man’s eyes on me. I do not dare look at him in case I meet his gaze. I would have to smile, he might ask me something, I would have to answer. I try to be quiet, not to make a rustling noise. Now I put on the top sheet. I have to squeeze between the furniture to tuck in the edges. When I pass the man’s outstretched legs, I tense up in order not to touch them accidentally and I start to hurry and rush what I am doing. The fellow looks at me quite openly now. I can feel it. His outstretched legs are a provocation, they’re in my way and make me shy. The hurry and agitation make me hot. My tensed-up calf muscles hurt when I lift the heavy mattress. I put on the clean pillowcases, but I don’t quite succeed and a pillow slips out of my hand and drops on the floor. I stumble over it and lose my balance. I fall straight into his curious gaze.

‘Are you Spanish?’ he asks.

‘Oh no, no.’

‘Jewish?’

I deny it.

‘So, where are you from?’

I reply, and he looks disappointed. I arrange the pillows and start tackling the counterpane. He follows me with interest as I fight with the heavy bedspread. Again I am close to him, this time with my back to him. As I arrange the pillows I sense his eyes on my calves. I move towards the wall and hide my legs behind the bed. Suddenly, I feel embarrassed about my flat, black shoes and, before I know it, I raise myself on tiptoe. At once I regret having to wear this ugly, unflattering uniform with the apron and a bunch of keys at my waist and not one of those elegant dresses I saw in the Americans’ room. I feel grubby, sweaty, tired. I know that the man at the computer is staring at me quite unashamedly. His gaze touches me somewhere around the collar and the zip, but I am already on the other side of the bed. I should go past him once more in order to lay out the small cushions, but I would have to stand with my back to his voracious gaze, so I simply toss the cushions on to the bed. Crouching down to pick up the dirty linen, the linen of the fellow who is staring at me, I feel that my body is swelling as if wanting to jump out of its uniform. Would I have to excuse myself? And in what tone, what language, why? I back towards the door with my eyes lowered. I collect my cleaning materials and rush to the door.

‘Thank you,’ I say, knowing that there is nothing I have to thank him for. It is he who should bow courteously and kiss my hand. And I would curtsy or something of the kind.

I see that the fellow nods his head forgivingly and in the very slight smile of his there is something which makes me reach for the door handle with relief.

‘See you,’ he says, but I don’t want to see him ever again.

I am already outside the door.

I stand there for an instant and listen. I feel hot, my legs are hurting, my muscles tremble from exhaustion. I’ve hurried so much that I have a lot of spare time now. It would be good to go downstairs and cool down.

I leave my bucket next to the wall and go to the third floor, where there is a small passageway to the annex, a twisting side stair and where

The mysterious part of the hotel

for the permanent guests starts. I go down a few steps, pass one or two doors and stop in front of the banister separating a stairwell two or three storeys high. I look down and see only the ground floor from here. And—as usual—not a soul about.

Only the half darkness and the quiet. This is the best relaxation: to look down to where everything becomes progressively smaller and more distant, less clear, more illusory. The annex is really the most mysterious part of the hotel. You have to be very clever not to get lost here. It is all stairs, passages, landings and bends. It is a kind of tower with additions, three storeys high. On each storey there are two rooms, and each room number always begins with a seven. I know that there are eight rooms in all, but I cannot imagine where they squeezed in the two remaining ones. Perhaps they are being occupied by misanthropes or inconvenient wives, dangerous twin brothers, shady women lovers. Perhaps they are rented out by the Mafia for the purpose of illegal transactions, or to heads of state who, in the enclosure of this spiral space, can try to be someone ordinary for a while.

In this part of the hotel, the rooms are different; they are, in fact, apartments. They are in some ways less elegant, or have a different kind of elegance, with their built-in wardrobes, covered balconies, curious furniture and fake books: whole shelves of them: Shakespeare, Dante, Donne, Walter Scott. When you take one of these in your hand, it turns out to be an empty box mimicking a book cover. Libraries of emptiness.

When you go down to the staff toilets you have to be careful not to lose your bearings. It used to happen to me at the beginning. I used to open a familiar door but it did not lead to where I expected. I used to leave my cleaning kit on the stairs and then not be able to find it again. I admired the reproductions of still lives on the wall and then thought that I saw them in a dream. Something strange happens to space here. Space does not like spiral stairs, chimneys and wells. It tends to degenerate into labyrinths. The best way is to hold on to the handrail as I am doing just now, Not to look down or up, but straight ahead.

Suddenly, I catch a sound. Somewhere below me something is going on which sounds suspiciously rhythmical—puff, puff and a squeaking noise. I descend one floor, tense as a cat. A groan, a squeak, a groan, a squeak. What is it? I approach the door which is just like any other door in the hotel. Except that it is a little ajar, and through the crack I can see metal buckles, and I can clearly hear these strange noises and this groaning. Carefully, I put my ear to the door and now the groaning becomes quicker, more violent, and the squeaking more terrifying. I jump away, feeling suddenly hot; the keys attached to my belt clank. On the other side of the door everything stops. Quietly, I run up the stairs to the floor above and look over the railings. There’s a click of buckles being released and a man wearing nothing but shorts puts his head out of the door. In his hands he has a gadget made of springs, like a complicated expander. I step back to the wall. It’s not easy to calm the imagination, once it is aroused.

I climb down the dark spiral stairs once more to the cellar where the staff toilets are located. Here it’s bright owing to the vulgar strip lighting. I reach the toilet and close the door behind me. I splash my face and hands in cold water but this does not bring any relief. I sit down on the toilet seat. Not a sound is to be heard here. It’s sterile, calm, secure. With great attention I examine the box of cleaning powder, paper towels, a big roll of the toilet paper and the notices written out in Miss Lang’s handwriting which amount to A Short History of Civilizing the Staff.

First Miss Lang wrote: WHY DO YOU THINK DISPOSABLE BAGS HAVE BEEN INSTALLED HERE BY THE HOTEL? and signed it: MISS LANG. But evidently none of the girls was able to answer this question, and hence the notice underneath: WOULD YOU MIND USING PAPER BAGS TO DISPOSE OF SANITARY TOWELS. But this request must also have gone unheeded since below, in red letters, Miss Lang has written categorically: PLEASE DO NOT THROW SANITARY TOWELS AND TAMPONS INTO THE TOILET!

Now I sit on it, contemplating the shape of each letter. Then I pull the chain, adjust my hair and go back to my floor, since I still have to clean the last room.

It’s past two o’clock in the afternoon and the hotel is busy. The official lift goes up and down, there is a clanking of doors being opened and shut. Guests are going out into town, their stomachs demanding lunch. Angelo of the Soiled Linen has settled in his little service room and is packing linen into big sacks.

‘How many left to do yet?’ he asks.

‘Just one,’ I reply and once again, I become aware that Angelo’s proper place is not in a hotel, not even a hotel as elegant as this one, but in ‘The Song of Songs’. That is where he might be wandering, leaping from mountain to mountain like a young deer. Because Angelo is as beautiful and imposing as the mountains in his native Lebanon.

He nods his head, indicating an elderly couple leaving room 228. I saw them once before on the way to the lift. He is tall, with a slight stoop, but in much better shape than she is. Perhaps he is younger, or perhaps he is just cheating time. She is small, wrinkled, trembling, barely able to walk.

‘They are Swedish. She has come here to die,’ says Angelo knowingly.

Angelo may be joking, but when I look at them as they go past, I see that this old man is more than supporting her, he is practically carrying her. If he stepped aside, she would fall on the floor like a discarded garment. They always wear beige and faun, the colours of the hotel. They are both grey, with the kind of greyness which has long left all sins behind.

When they’ve disappeared into the lift, I go into their room. I like doing this room. There is not much to do here; things are all in their places as if rooted to the ground. The air is not reverberating with bad dreams, groans, excitement. The pillows, barely showing any indentation, testify to a good sleep. In the bathroom towels are tidily hung, toothbrushes neatly arranged, the shine of the tumblers is reflected in the mirror. Cosmetics are basic—an ordinary cream, mouthwash, discreet perfumes and eau de cologne. When I make the bed I am struck by the absence of any tangible smell. It’s like it is with children. Children’s skin does not have any smell by itself, it only captures and retains outside smells: the air, the wind, the grass crushed by an elbow and the wonderful, salty smell of the sun. This is what this bedding smells of. When one sleeps with no sin, no long-term ambitions, no angst and no despair, when the skin becomes thinner and thinner, paper-like, when life is escaping slowly from the body like air from a rubber toy, when one sees one’s past as something completed and closed up, when in the night one begins to dream about God, then the body ceases to mark its presence in the world with a smell. The skin receives smells from outside and savours them for the last time.

On the bedside table two books are resting next to each other. I listen for sounds from the corridor and then do something which I am not supposed to do. I open the first of the books, a thick one which might be a diary since each page is marked with a date and below it trembling rounded letters in a language totally unfamiliar to me. The book is almost finished, there are only a few pages left to the end. The other book is the Bible, in Swedish. I cannot understand anything and yet all seems so familiar. A red bookmark marks the Book of Ecclesiastes. I run my eye along the page and I have the impression that I am beginning to understand it. First individual words and then whole phrases float out of memory and mix with the print. ‘That which hath been is now; and that which is to be hath already been; and God requires that which is past.’

The most mysterious words of the Holy Book.

When the cleaning is done I sit for a moment on the freshly made-up bed. It is very pleasant to suspend one’s existence in such a way. Then I look at my hands, roughened by the bath-cleaning fluids, at my already swollen feet in their black slippers. But my body is alive and fills the skin to the brim. I sniff the sleeve of my uniform—it smells of tiredness, sweat, life.

With deliberation I leave some of this smell in room 228.

I close the door and go to the service room. I put away the vacuum cleaner and the cleaning kit and divest myself of the pink and white uniform. For a moment I stand there naked, without qualities. For the Transformation to take place in reverse order, I must put on my earrings, a colourful dress, ruffle my hair and put on make-up.

As I walk out into the sunlit street I pass the Scotsman who is changing in the doorway. The kilt is resting on the bagpipes while he buttons up a pair of fashionable jeans.

‘I knew you were only pretending,’ I call to him.

He smiles mysteriously and winks at me.

 

Photograph © Lise Sarfati

 

Overreachers
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