Last night my story Room 618 won the Wasafiri Prize for New Writing during an event at Bush House in London. Here it is!
* * *
I taught myself how not to speak. They gave me printed cards. Cleaning in progress, one read. Housekeeping available. I could put out a yellow cone. No more was necessary.
I was already placeless. ‘Je suis Ivoiriènne,’ I’d told the other chambermaids, but then explained that Ivoiriènne meant Côte d’Ivoire, the Ivory Coast. Yes, ivory as in elephants. No, I’d never seen one. I told them about West Africa, Africa the thing that dangled beneath Europe. They were from the Philippines. They hardly understood. So finally I built a model out of cleaning products. ‘There!’ At last I pointed, for my home was marked. If product touches the eyes, seek immediate assistance.
I told my family about this on the next day that I rang. I offered it part as a joke. It was also a plea. But the line was bad. They did not seem to hear me. Beside, our common tongue by then was Western Union-ese. So we talked exchange rates, transactions pending, sent, collected. They said they had to go and I returned to the hotel. I passed my supervisor. She stopped me and she said, ‘You’re doing well.’
I was. My pillowcase tips had improved, no longer loose, leftover change but real money and put there with care. Sometimes they wrote notes. Somebody laid out an old fifty franc note. When the bank refused to change it, I pinned it above my bed, a talisman. It worked. The supervisor spoke to me a second time. ‘I’m moving you to the sixth floor’, she said. ‘You start tomorrow.’
The sixth floor – I had not seen it since induction. It possessed a special silence rising up from the thicker carpet, out of wallpaper striped in gold. Also from the men – the sixth was always men. Other chambermaids warned me that their quiet was like sickness, an infection rising from their empty miniatures, also from tissues thrown down by the beds, all that unwanted love. One of the Phillipinos mimed a pantomime of prayer – for me, for them, for this hotel, I was not sure.
I arrived early the next morning. The supervisor checked me over. ‘Less smile,’ she said. ‘And never anything except the uniform.’ She meant I had to become pale, if not in skin then manner, hotel colours only, pink above white. Then she told me to polish fingerprints off all the buttons by the lift. There was to be no evidence of anyone, least of all me.
It turned out that the sixth floor was not difficult. My men had their routines. By seven o’clock, the busy ones had left, wheeling cases obediently behind them. The corridor briefly remembered them for aftershave or complimentary shampoo. Then they were gone. Whereas I pushed my trolley ahead of me. It mattered more. Its wheels moved to the music of the sleeping men whose work was done.
Also my men were campers. Their mess did not spread beyond their beds – sheets as if tigers had fought, towels all akimbo, relicts of their dead breakfasts, butter everywhere. They came and slept and washed and ate and left. So I undid them in moments. The only time I paused was when they left used whisky tumblers by the bath.
They were good men, too, did what they could. I was proud of them. They always changed the channel back off adult pay-TV. When the hotel introduced a new system my men tried very hard, reusing their towels to save the planet. Once, when I had cleaned up blood, blood on the pillows, blood on the floor, an American said he would thank the Good Lord for me. He’d been ashamed, he explained, only a nosebleed but what if someone had seen. I accepted his prayers gladly. I did not tell him I was somebody as well.
I still sent money home. The phone calls stopped. I received automated thanks once a week. One day I woke and there was no more reason to resist. I let the hotel swallow me. It was an act of love.
At first the man in 618 was a thief of my time. He had possessions. I had to dust around them. They seemed to claim that this was home: his photograph of children, a cupboard full of clothes, a set of complimentary pens from hotels just like this one in unfabulous elsewheres. He left files on the desk. I could not read a word. But I knew that he was British because he tried to make the bed. Also he wore slippers, left them in the morning beneath the basin where he’d shaved. The rim of facial hair was not too high. He saved water.
I liked the slippers, took to returning them to his bedside – not my job. A chambermaid was meant to tidy, never to predict. But I could not help but make a story from them, my man on his return from work, kicking off his shoes, starting to relax. Something in that made me smile, although I kept this to myself.
Then, on his fifth morning, Room 618 left money, a blue twenty euro note inside one of the slippers. It was a way of speaking. I translated it as ‘Thank you.’ I smiled and this time kept the smile on me as I polished his mirror, wiping off his steam-traces and looking at myself. We were a pair of ghosts merging, two twirls of gauzy tulle. I laid him out a double offering of hotel soap.
But returned, panicking, to 618 at end of shift. I was afraid I had somehow littered myself there. I scrubbed the mirror once again but the room still needed freshening – not from him, he had no smell, ridding of me. There were sprays that I could use but didn’t. They left a trace. Instead I went downstairs and took some flowers from the store. These were meant for honeymooners and first nights on full rate. I placed them in a vase and disappeared.
The next morning 618 had given fifty euros to me. The flowers remained fresh. He had renewed their water for himself. This seemed to add something to my account of him, this man with children, clothes and memories who also cared for living things. Were I to have tumbled, I reckoned, into the other sixth floor existence, I would want to be a man a lot like him.
His seventh was my rest day. I used his money to buy a place in a real French café, keeping at bay the waiters with fresh orders of coffee. From Côte d’Ivoire, a sign promised – it tasted of nowhere. I looked for my black face on the liquid’s sullen surface but it would not hold even a slice of my reflection. Later I walked past the hotel and the porters recognised me. They waved and I waved back, glad of their friendliness. I wondered later if they might have been wafting me away. The staff door was separate. We were not allowed to use the front.
I was glad to put on my pale uniform again. Room 618 was empty early. He’d left a suit to be cleaned. There was no money for me today, though, and the flowers had wilted. His slippers looked unkempt. This time I did not only straighten them but brushed the upper fabric smooth. I went to get more blooms.
And it was as I turned the faces of the flowers towards his children that I noticed the man’s set of pens had vanished. No more had he been to Moscow, Bogotá, Kuala Lumpur. I checked – I felt he’d hate to lose them except I did not feel, I knew– but they had disappeared. He was just this hotel and this city. It was the best that I could do to replace them with lots of ours. I spoke out loud, ‘If he has only Paris, may he have Paris in abundance.’
The next morning, his number eight, there was change waiting on the pillow in the dent made by his head. It was thought-money, I decided, the coins of his imagining me. He'd used aftershave that day, a Hugo Boss. I rather liked it, found the bottle, put a little on my wrist. It had been airport duty free, I saw, a gift from him to him. That felt sad until I thought, ‘No, from him to him but now also from him to me.’ I liked the way it made me smell – whiter, a sort of man. I took a turn around the room, mine and his.
Then I remembered his children. I turned to see what they might think. ‘Do you like your father’s new woman, the one he’s never met?’
They were gone. The photo frame was where it had always been, but the figures had paled and become faceless. It was as if pallid colours, magnolia and pink had invaded his past and conquered. My uniform had leaked across his life.
I found my softest brush and tried to wash it off. But there was nothing underneath, only a hole. So that lunchtime I slid out of the hotel and bought him colour, flowers imported from Africa. I had to smuggle them inside beneath my pinafore.
His ninth morning brought twenty euros and a letter from him for me. A letter – he had written it with one of the pens I’d left for him. Simple words, just Thank you for the flowers, at first sight careless, a busy man’s pennyworth of time dropped down into my beggar’s lap. But I did not believe this. I hoarded the paper. Later that day, I taught myself how to write like him. I lacked some shapes, no m, no i. It was a new kind of script, not block letter requests for more cleaning fluids but instead a swirl for signatures and writing cheques. I replied in it as best I could. For your whole way of, I started and I wanted to add kindness but my letter-hoard was bare. I left my note as it was. He would complete it.
That day during our break the other chambermaids were all comparing uglinesses, tales of the people we made clean and then spied dirty. They hooted at the men caught naked, women clipping their toenails. They wondered how rich people could become so ringed with fat. They laughed. I copied. It felt like a foreign language. I returned to 618 and gave more water to the flowers. Then I went to find the girl who was on the sixth floor turn-down. I offered to stand in for her, which she seemed to think strange. But I wanted to see him. It was time. We had to meet. I knew he ate room service on his own.
Later I knocked. He did not answer. I said, ‘It’s only me.’ Then I used my pass key and I entered 618.
He had found my note, though. He had completed it in my-our script too, given me my missing letters. But he had not used them to build kind words. I am losing who I am, he told me.
I had to find him. I looked inside his cupboard. That was when I ran, visible and unsilenced, my shoes striking the rich carpet, my hands banging along the patterned walls. I called for him. I asked others. I used the guests’ exclusive lift. I found the supervisor in her office and I asked her, ‘What’s his name?’
She was as pale as the forms on her desk. ‘Why do you want to know that?’
Because I knew a man who’d lost his children, lost his clothes and lost his past. 618 was naked. I could save him. The supervisor threw me out, said that I would be reassigned. But I was already on my way back to the room. There I offered myself to him. My name is Amandine, I wrote. I come from Ivory Coast. I have a family. Take any of this you need.
I walked through the city all night. I searched, not knowing what he looked like. I called without a name. In an uncertain, foggy dawn, I re-entered Room 618 though I was meant to be three floors below. I found he’d left me money but had not slept in the bed. Yet he had lain on top, for when I placed myself inside the shallow valley of his body I acquired a little of the warmth left there.
Thus the supervisor found me, lying on a guest’s bed and moneyed, a hundred euro note in the pouch of my uniform. ‘No one ever tips that much,’ she said. ‘You are a thief.’ She sacked me. I was nothing.
I wandered the streets. They spat on me. Maybe it was raining. I tried to see myself in glass shop fronts but couldn't; I had gone. After the rain, a thick mist smothered Paris. I borrowed a skin from it. This was the alchemy that made me pale at last.
I found myself back at the main door of the hotel. I saw a woman standing at the staff entrance. She was African and new, still awkward in her uniform. She was familiar. I smiled at her. We waved. I was glad, for in his fear he had taken what I had offered him. The staff door closed, engulfing him-her. I was left alone.
The mist was shredding in the wind. I could not tell who I was. So I made for the hotel’s entrance – that was where people learnt to know themselves. I hesitated then stepped forward. In a pocketful of pens I found a wallet. I checked in. I signed the forms using my-our, no, just my own swirling signature. I talked about my children while a man tapped at computer keys. He told I would have fresh flowers in my room. In the box Country of Origin I wrote Côte d’Ivoire and then I laughed – my mistake, that had been my previous stop. I scored it out in favour of England, the land where slippers came from. It was a place I’d have to visit now that I came from there.