I would prefer not to open my eyes, not this morning. In the end, I know I’ll have to, but I’ll do it against my will. I would much rather not co-operate.
And the insects, they don’t help. They’re outside, I’ve no clue how many, but apparently a lot, and all of them are making these hot, unpredictable scuttles of noise: like loosed wires sparking, like tin toys breaking up: there beyond the walls and windows, thousands of tiny instincts signalling they want to kill each other and have sex.
That’s fine, though, because they’re not in here with me, at least I don’t think so. I have no desire to check.
But I would like to know why my mouth tastes of rust, which means iron, which means blood. I hope I’ve just eaten rust and forgotten about it; hardly likely, but I’ll try to think so, anyway. Last night, I must have swallowed something rusty, or licked it, and now I don’t recall, can’t yet recall. And I think I had a dream with metal in it: perhaps it’s possible to save a flavour you’ve known in your sleep.
I have definitely saved a bad feeling of some kind, another aftertaste, and both of my eyes are still shut, because I am nervous about them being any other way.
Even so, it will be OK, not unpleasant, completely familiar, when I break out into my first look at the day. I can do that: it isn’t a threat, shouldn’t be a threat, there shouldn’t be anything untoward about it.
Shuttered windows, slicing jabs of light, the bed beneath me bobbing briefly like a dinghy on a lazy sea.Which is wrong, definitely.
There you are, though, seeing—no problem, nothing to worry about.
Except for the bed and the light, which is far advanced, the kind that you only get when you’ve missed the morning and I didn’t think I had. It also hurts, which it really shouldn’t. Deep in the meat of my brain, something I can’t identify has become extremely sensitive and, tucked away beneath all this, my teeth feel unfamiliar and my tongue is, somehow, in the way.
My bed bobs again.
I wish it wouldn’t.
But this is not a problem: it is a solution, in fact, because now I understand the bobbing, the bad feeling, the trouble with my eyes, the rust: I am not well.
I am not well and in a foreign country.
So I should think about insurance and if I took any out and what class I might come under—negligence, poisoning, infection, act of God—I’m not exactly sure how I will qualify.
I don’t want to see a doctor.
I’m almost certain that I dreamed about a doctor, one I didn’t like. Sleeping or waking, there’s no way to tell here if someone truly is a doctor, if their needles are clean, or necessary, if what they say they’ll do to you is safe. So I’ll go without.
But I am in a foreign country and sick.
My legs are sticking to the sheets, I notice, everything about me showing obvious signs of being overheated, feverish.
Nice word, feverish. You couldn’t guess its meaning.
I did think I was cold, but apparently I’m not. Skin under sweat, it’s meant to look attractive. It doesn’t—it blotches and drags, seems furtive, unclean.
This will be the photograph they use, post mortem—distasteful areas boxed out under black—and then there’ll be the holiday snap— here she is, when still living—the unwittingly poignant smile. The papers will show them both for contrast.Or maybe I’ll only make it to the internet, uncensored.
Anyway, I don’t have a holiday snap. I don’t take them. I don’t want to see and no one else does, either.
A pressure fingers underneath my heart and my mouth fills with saliva. Swallowing is difficult and doesn’t help, I have to wipe my lips which I find are now oily and vaguely obscene. I reach behind my head, unsteadying the edges, the corners, the meeting places of the ceiling, walls, floor. I catch at the air conditioner’s control and turn it. The mechanism jolts and then begins to grind out a minor disturbance in the padded warmth above my face.Without intending, I picture vast wheels milling, hidden by the plasterboard, crushing the limbs of something, wet tufts of hair, lodged and oozing in the cogs.
No, imagine nice things, kind things, happy things, cool water, cut grass.
Frost. Frost on a field: a meadow, better word, meadow: and a little, frozen river under trees, well-intentioned trees.
The pace of my saliva relents and the weight in my stomach shifts, sly, but then settles, not unbearable.
I could lie on the river, roll out flat, naked, cheek to cheek.
I have a clear, soothing sense of frozen water, the slowly melting nubs and flats of it, moulding to me, and my panic is resting back, dwindling, until the idea of ice reopens last night’s dream.
I was ill there, too: in a hotel room, a bathroom, the bathroom I have now: grubby white tiling walls, truncated tub, everything the same. Trying to sit up in the bath and the ice chips sinking underneath me, creaking when they shift, lifting my hands which are thick with cold crystals, brownish pink.
The mirror opposite me seems to fluctuate and pitch. I may have brain damage. I may be hallucinating. I may already be entirely unable to tell which.
Then I hold still and everything else does, too.
Somebody told me this, or I read it: the story where you wake up in an ice bath and, taped where you can see, there’s a note which says you shouldn’t stand, shouldn’t even try to, that everything is over and done with, no point in being alarmed.
“Good evening. Service.”
Out in the corridor, a pass key fidgets at the lock.
Good evening, what?
Louder, “Good evening. Service,” the door sweeping open and, almost immediately, jolting to a stop. I’ve left on the security chain—being a nervous traveller comes in handy, now and then.
What time is it, though—I mean the real time? The staff here say the same thing to anyone English-speaking, night or day. Here it’s both good and an evening perpetually.
I’m going to start bleeding somewhere, if he keeps up that noise.
“Come back.” I have to swallow again. “Later.” My voice sounding masculine and strangled. “Please.”
“Service, good evening.” The door nudges in again experimentally, but gets no further.
What the hell is “Service,” anyway? “I am not well. Come back.Tomorrow.”My stomach cramps slightly, teasing.
He’ll understand “tomorrow,” surely to God.
“I clean room now, please.” The voice doesn’t sound insistent, only certain of how things are done.
“No. You clean tomorrow.TO-MOR-ROW.”
God, I sound like a racist. Bellowing things, demanding. I mean, I respect other cultures, I try, but I do only have this one language, which is a failing, but what can I do. I want to sound agreeable, that is completely what I intend.
“Service. I clean today.”
“oh, will you just FUCK OFF!”
Jesus, I’m sorry, I’m absolutely sorry, I totally am.
There is a wounded silence in which I do not audibly apologise.Well, I didn’t ask for “Service.” Then the door flinches shut, the lock clacks, and I don’t feel remotely relieved because of this kicking which blossoms through my torso, and raises a fresh, throbbing sweat. If I don’t reach the bathroom before I exhale, I will vomit in my bed.
Funny how you always want your mother when you’re throwing up. No matter what.
And let’s do this properly, first time—clear and finished, please. Get rid of the lot.
So think of the note, the dream of the note—
You see yourself, you’re shivering and reading that surgeons have taken out both of your kidneys, they’ve drugged you and stolen the pair, and then sewn you up, empty and dying and packed round with bloodstained ice. You haven’t been murdered, your body will kill you: slowly, because you’ve been chilled.
Oh, dear God.
And this works like a nasty charm, clears more than everything. While I shake through the last, hard coughs I move my hands to check my unaltered back. I’m still complete.
Tim was there in my sleep, too. I remember now, seeing him turn his head, as if I’d called. He was sheepish and excited, at the edge of smiling: the way he’d always be while he waited to see if I knew that he’d done a wrong thing: when he wanted to check we were both going to like it, make it allowed.
My throat feels ragged. But the spasms have turned drowsy and subsided: I do seem better.
I finish the last of the bottled water, rinsing my mouth and then sipping. Avoid dehydration—it creeps up. Beyond the windows, I hear thin, repeated screams from what I guess must be a bird, something anxious and predatory, ascending to my left. Walking evenly, as if I might spill, I go back to the wreck of my bed and then lie down gently.
Tim would have enjoyed this.
Not that Tim welcomed illness for itself, he just wanted to take care. It’s what pleased him: padding about with aspirin, hot-water bottles, snacks.
He would take off his glasses and we would understand that I was just better enough. He would take off his glasses and put them beside the lamp, pull the covers back.He would take off his glasses and blink, be free then to lower his head, his clever mouth.
I am breathing through my teeth, trying to keep the memory angled away and to have no feeling. This isn’t a time when I can afford to be disturbed.
Sometimes I would just pretend, go upstairs and draw the curtains, fighting fit and waiting for his mouth.
This is unwise. This is not a time to think.
When Tim was ill himself, though, he preferred to be left alone— like a cat, he said. Then I found him on a Sunday morning, early, in the kitchen, and I told him he didn’t have flu, that it was serious, and then the first doctor finally arrived and talked to me as if I was a child, said house calls were reserved for emergencies, but after that,Tim was trying to walk and falling and talking, shouting, at nobody, and then I made a second doctor come, with an ambulance on its way, because I’d described Tim’s rash again and made them understand that he had meningitis and might die.
But I knew he wouldn’t.
They shaved his head and trepanned him to let the pressure out. In three places, they drilled through his skull and he was alone with them when they did it. But, when it was finished, I sat by his bed, stayed there talking, saying his name for days while he was still. I kept calling him in. I was sure he wouldn’t go, that he couldn’t leave me.
He came home two stone lighter and with a soft haze of regrowth on his scalp, a dressing, tape. And he had a new skin: fierce and pale and naked, completely naked. I couldn’t see him without touching him. At first, only with my mouth, because that was gentle.He needed gentleness.
I move my head to study the telephone; like the rest of the room, it is behaving normally. I could use it to call Tim. The time difference, though, the other differences—it would all end up being too difficult.
While he lay on the hospital bed, I made him promises, more than I can remember, I put all that we might be into his silence, his sleep. Sometimes I think it’s made me seem an anticlimax to him since—I never have lived up to any of the dreams I gave him—he settled for second best by coming back to life.
I roll on my side and set the walls and carpet swinging, my head is muzzled suddenly, held in something wet. I retch, stumble up for the bathroom and retch again.
When I kneel, I don’t touch the toilet—no need to volunteer for other illnesses—I breathe between the rising cramps—Oh Jesus, oh Jesus Christ—and again I want my mother. Fuck. Another series of jolts. Oh, fuck it.
And nothing happens, not a thing. In what must be half an hour, I bring up a single, scouring mouthful of bile. Whatever this is, I can’t be rid of it.
Back on the bed, I crouch, defensive, suddenly burning, and reach for the phone. In a quite unlikely but persuasive way, it seems both more beautiful and more solid than it did before: a worryingly lovely, heavy telephone with a button to press for messages—I either haven’t got one, or it doesn’t work—and one for reception and one with a symbol I don’t recognise—God knows— and one with a miniature waiter holding a miniature tray—which means Room Service. Not “Service.” Room Service—that’s what I want.
“Yes, Room Service? I need water. Please.” I have no water left.“Large-sized bottle; bottles. I want two large-sized bottles of water.”Without it, a person can die.
The line out to wherever Room Service is prickles and whines.
“The biggest size.”
I have no idea if I am audible, or understood. “I have not been well.”As if they care. “Sorry . . . Can you?—Sorry.Water . . . Water?”
There must be guests who can do this, who find it easy, who can just order things. “Sorry. Two bottles. Please.” Without making a single apology. Or saying please. “Two bottles . . . Hello? Good evening?”
The connection oozes away, implacably uncommunicative, and finishes with a little click.
If Room Service never arrives, there will be no water. I need water. If Room Service does arrive, there will be water. Which I need. But then I will have to get dressed and stand up and unlock the door and reach out and get the water, carry it.
I don’t know if I can.
Now, even when I close my eyes, something undulates—the blood light at the back of my eyelids, it’s treacherous. If Tim was here I would tell him about it, or would have told him, before the meningitis and the disappointment.
It was that time, that evening, weekday evening, when I walked in on him and watched his face close, everything blurring to neutral, to a chill, just because I was there. I had surprised him being the way that he used to be, but it wasn’t for me any more, so he shut it away.
We spend more time working, he takes evenings out, it surprises me now when we meet in the house; going into a quiet room and there he’ll be. I try to look irritated and leave before he does.We go on holiday separately.
I flatten myself to the sheet, press and press my forehead against the small creak of the mattress as if this will alter a single mistake I’ve made. Because I didn’t shout, didn’t grab him by the arm and shout in his face, didn’t throw a clock I was fond of and hurt to see it smashed and to see him keep on going, leave the room without a sound—I didn’t do any of that until it was only stupid and too late. An infection in the brain, the doctors told me, might make him different and so I went against myself and drifted for months, let him be, let what I knew of him leave me.
Except when that light comes back to his skin, that nakedness. Not to talk, not to see each other—it’s only to meet his mouth, lace my hands behind his new, cropped hair, know we can taste what hasn’t changed.
“Room Service, good evening.”
The door stammers with a series of knocks and I am caught in the cold recollection of lying beneath a husband I can’t speak to, both of us dead weights, breathing, recovering ourselves, our sadness, our embarrassment.
“Room Service, good evening.”
“Yes.” I am still naked. “Yes. Good evening.” And I don’t want to move. “Leave it outside the door.” I don’t want anyone near me.
“You want—?” It isn’t the would-be room cleaner, I think I would recognise that voice.
“I said, leave it outside the door.” And if I sound like a Colonial oppressor, I don’t care. “I CAN’T GET UP NOW. LEAVE IT.”
“Good evening. Thank you.” This sounds slightly put out, but a muffled clunking gives me cause for hope.
I will stand, I will wrap myself up in the sheet and do what I must to get my water.
When my hand finds the child-skin at the small of his back, I always wait for that.
My scalp tingles, as if there were someone behind me, or above, and the insects worry on and I lever up to sit, then stand. My balance swims, but lands again and I drag the sheet round to cover me, shuffle for the door.
The lock foxes me for a moment, no more than that, I open it, lean out into the hot, empty passageway, swipe down for the two bottles, retrieve them and half stagger back. The effort of this bangs in my head. Still, I have my water—that’s fine.
• • •
Good evening. Good evening? Room Service?”
The line is a little worse than before, as if it anticipated my call and is already disapproving.
“Yes. I ordered water. Two bottles of water and you left them.” If anyone is listening, they make no sound. “Someone left them . . .”This is too complicated. “Someone left them and I have them, but the seals on the bottles are broken . . .” I wait for an intervention of some kind, but none is forthcoming: I will have to say this all on my own. “If the seals are broken . . . by mistake.” There’s no reason to accuse anybody—obviously that’s what I’m doing, but I don’t really mean it that way. “I can’t drink. I have been ill. All day ill. I need clean water.”
“Our water is clean.” “I’ll . . .” Shit. “Look, I’ll pay for new bottles, but if the seals—”
“I will send him again.” The distant receiver clanks down.
So I’ll have to be ready when he arrives.
I move to look at my jeans where they’re crumpled on the chair, moderately baffling, and then lift them, scattering meaningless small coins out of the pockets, a crush of dirty notes. Methodically, I balance, step, waver, then work my way in. The T-shirt is easier. After that, I stay on the chair, waiting, smoothing my breath, ducking every thought of Tim’s hands, the way they can be, confident with fastenings, the parting drift of cloth.
More quickly than I expected, the knock comes.
“You have a problem.” He is perhaps seventeen, lost in somebody’s oversized guess at an impressive uniform: cuffed black trousers, a purple jacket with gold piping, creased patent leather shoes. “There is something wrong.” He makes each statement critical and precise, a slight edge there to emphasise that he can understand my language while I would be lost in his.
Well, I’ll apologise for being British later.
“I, ah, yes. The seals . . .” This sounds so petty. “I’m sure this has nothing to do with you, maybe your supplier . . .” His sleeves are turned under to fit—and he sees that I’ve noticed.
He sets down two new bottles of water on the table and lifts up the old, unwilling to admit defeat. “The seals . . . ?”He delicately twists both caps, then waits, surveying primly, making it plain that he dislikes me, the tangled bed, the slovenly room, the indications of deeper disorder.
I try to sound brisk. “The seals are broken, as you can see.” I should have put on underwear—then I might have a sense of authority.“That will be all.”
“Our supplier is at fault. I am so sorry.” This in an insincere drawl.
I will have to sit down soon. “That’s fine, then.” The young man shows no sign of moving.
Well, I’m not giving him a tip—not unless it makes him go away.His hands are shaking visibly. I suppose that he might be afraid, either furious or afraid, perhaps both.
“Thank you. I’ll tell your manager you’ve helped me. Good evening.” I attempt a smile, but he ignores it and leaves with a pointed, “Good afternoon.”
Maybe I’ve lost him his job.
Or maybe everybody down in Room Service spends their days filling water bottles from the tap, from stagnant pools, from beggars’ wounds, how should I know. We’ve made them suffer, why not? I probably earn his year’s salary in a week.
I don’t care, though. Not one of them is my direct responsibility.
The new seals are OK, the first one giving with a reassuring snap and letting me, finally, drink. It tastes faintly chalky and lukewarm. I run a few drops into the hollow of my palm and wipe my face.
Next year I’m taking my break in Europe, in Britain: at least then I’ll be poisoned close to home.Tim never goes far: a long weekend in Antrim, the Lake District, a few days in Argyll, the Orkney Isles. He always comes back happy.
Because he’s been away from me.
But if he’s happy, that’s when he’ll do a wrong thing.
I keep drinking, probably too much.
Lips against lips while I stroke his hair, feel when he breathes, swallow when he swallows. Clever mouth, it always deepens the parting, opens it, smoothes the smooth. And then he looks up, lifts his head: Tim, sheepish and excited, at the edge of smiling. It used to be the little glance that made sure I was happy and he was allowed. Now it lets me know that this is wicked and nice because we are two strangers.
When the telephone rings, I rush a mouthful, cough.
No one but Tim knows I’m here.
“Good evening. This is a single occupancy room?” It is a hotel voice, a stranger. “It is a single occupancy?”
“It’s what?” I am conscious of the liquid weight I’ve loaded in.
“It is a single occupancy, what you have paid for.”
“Yes. Single. Yes.”
I don’t want to deal with this now—whatever this is. “You don’t let our personnel clean your room. You have been there for the complete day, not leaving. Now you have two bottles of water. But this is a single occupancy room.”
“Look, what are you . . . ? I’ve been ill. Ill.”
Room Service—they’re paying me back.
“I need a lot of water.” There is a sceptical pause. “You can come and search if you like.” And another. “Two bottles does not imply two people. I mean, if I was in the same bed with someone, we could surely share the same bloody bottle.”
This is obviously a deeply improper suggestion. “I have to ask if you are alone, this is all. This is my job.”
“Great, you’ve done your job. Good evening.”
I hang up, before they can say anything else.
And fuck you. Single occupancy.What else.
Then a twist of nausea shakes me, doubles me forward. Arms, legs, everything is slippy, jerking with each lunge, and I don’t think I can walk and I am right, but I tumble and stagger into the bathroom, the cooler air, the business of being freed from this.
It takes a while.
And then something has altered. The stillness is more definitive. My lips seem tender, I am light-headed, but I know I won’t have to be sick again.
Found the trigger, didn’t I.
Some thoughts are best left quiet and I shut myself against them every day. It isn’t often that they have a use.
But today they were what I needed.
So I unlocked the morning when I smelt it on his hands and chose to ignore it, believed I was wrong, until it was there again one night, there on his face, his mouth, his lips: the scent of a stranger, of some other woman, some cunt. Tim, he noticed when I flinched, and took care to kiss me again, as if he wanted me to be quite sure that he’d done a wrong thing.
And I was sure enough to picture it, the way he would look up, happily caught in the act, before he tongued back in.
And I knew that he wouldn’t leave me and that I couldn’t leave him.
I still know it, the way that I know my name: Christian, Middle, Married. Now that we’re strangers, we need each other’s company. This won’t change. And, more than any infidelity, it sickens me. It sickens me.
I wash my face with bottled water and I stand. The room is itself and I am me. Nothing has changed.