The room had the fungal smell of damp towels and old sweat. Cigarette ash, too, souring the air. It was a dark morning. Penny put the light on.
"Not supposed to smoke in here", said Penny, starting work on the bed. She throttled a pillow out of its cover in one rough gesture and said, "Get the towels".
The bathroom looked relatively clean. Liam had a spray bottle in his hand and used it on the sink. Fresh lemon. The bright sharp scent went some way to waking him up.
"Towels, Liam", said Penny.
He put the used towels on the trolley and searched for a clean batch.
"On the bottom, there", said Penny, shrouded by the duvet cover.
He replaced the towels and went back to spraying.
"How does it look?" asked Penny.
"Fine. Not too bad."
Penny came to the bathroom door and said, "Bloody hell. The shower needs a good scrub. Sort the toilet first."
Liam had not considered the toilet. Obviously that was part of the job – hotels have toilets, yeah, he knew that much – but it was not something he thought about when he applied for the role of room attendant. He had never cleaned a toilet before, except by flushing. Looking into the bowl he saw a streak of shit on the curved porcelain. The universal human signature. He was surprised at how easily it came off with the toilet brush.
"Bed's done", said Penny, in the bathroom again. "You really need to give the shower door a good clean. And the shower itself, look, all manky. Hard water. Floor could do with a mop as well. You have to wonder what their homes look like."
Liam thought helplessly of his own room, at Dad's, with its improvised clutter, its tumbleweeds of hair and lint. It had never bothered him, the state of his room, but then no one else ever saw it. What would Penny think? Maybe he would learn something. That's what Dad had said, after the requisite piss-taking. "Christmas is round the corner: I'll get you a feather duster, eh? Or one a those hoovers they're always advertising. Eh? How 'bout one a those hoovers?" Laughing up a storm. Coughing up a lungful. Then saying, "Nah, be good for yer. Might learn summink."
Liam sprayed the shower door and wiped with a rag. It already seemed clean enough, but he thought he should take some time squeaking the rag across the glass, absorbing the sensation.
Penny was elsewhere, making busy sounds in the corridor, so his mind was free to wander. He had met Penny only twenty minutes ago, with a curt introduction – "Best thing's for you to learn on the job" – but her presence had already become overbearing, like a suspicious teacher who always seems to be floating near your desk. He quit school early, at sixteen, to get away from that sort of thing. "Don't think you're sitting around all day with yer feet up", Dad said. "You can come down to the garage with me." No – anything but that. So he took the first thing he was offered at the job centre. No interview. Start tomorrow.
"Wait till you get out into the real world." More of Dad's wisdom. Granted, the desire to avoid trouble was new. It hadn't bothered him so much at school. And of course money was attached now: £4.35 an hour. You couldn't be sacked from school. You could be suspended, as he had been, twice. In drastic circumstances you could be expelled, which he managed to avoid thanks to Dad's pleading phone calls to the headteacher, claiming immanent destitution. But there was nothing so abrupt as a sacking.
"Replace the tea and cutlery when you're done in there, sweet", said Penny. "I'll move on to the next room."
Liam was working on the rubber rim at the bottom of the shower door. Was it dirty, or was it supposed to be yellow? The colour didn't fade no matter how he attacked it. He stood up straight and felt a strain on his lower back. Would be nice to sit down. He gave the tap a cursory wipe on his way to the bedroom. The bed was immaculate, everything square and parallel. He wanted to mash his face in the fat smooth pillows. From the trolley he took some teabags, sugars and caramel biscuits in wrappers. He put them by the kettle and paused for a moment. Penny was talking and tutting to herself next door. From the trolley he took another biscuit, unwrapped it, and ate it. He put the wrapper in his pocket and privately gloated over the discovery of his first perk.
The hotel was combined with an events venue, which was in turn attached to a Business School. Liam did not have any notion of what actually happened in the events venue – the foyer, with its chirping receptionists, was all he saw – but he sometimes came across men in their stiff suits mooching in corridors, mesmerised by their phones or staring blankly at key cards. Penny said they usually stayed for a night or two, sometimes a long weekend, but rarely more than that. They were city people, out of place among the level fields and narrow, hedged roads. The area was primarily known for its numerous roundabouts; guests arrived dizzy. Towards the end of his shift Liam would notice more of them dotted about, never in their rooms. He assumed they were waiting for dinner – and then what? The canteen closed at seven. He heard rumours of a bar, a café, a glass-walled gym. Impossible to imagine such leisure, out here. Occasionally Penny would drop a name he recognised: Rolls-Royce; Boeing; British American Tobacco. He didn't like to ask what the guests were doing here because he thought he should already know. He should know – shouldn't he? – whose mess he was cleaning up.
Liam worked with Penny for the first week and then was left to his own schedule. The hotel rooms occupied the top two floors of the building and he was assigned a different floor each day – or more accurately half a floor. Room numbers 1 to 14, or 15 to 28. The instructions would be waiting for him every morning in the janitor's office, on a piece of paper next to the master key. At least once per shift he would meet another attendant coming the other way behind her rolling trolley – Penny, Janine or Irena. Janine was nearing old age, like Penny, but where Penny was stout and talkative, Janine was tall, shoulderless and silent. Liam was not entirely certain she spoke English. Irena was Lithuanian and spoke English with an accent. She was closer to Liam's age, maybe twenty, with golden hair and a smooth notch, like a scar, through one eyebrow. Irena always said hello and seemed amused by Liam whenever she saw him. Initially he was embarrassed to be seen by her, in his white polo and shiny school trousers, incongruous among the mops and soft cotton. He wanted to tell her he was into cars, powerful motors, souped up and loud with shotgun exhausts and terrifying sound systems, and he was going to have his own in a year's time, once he passed his test. This thing, this day job, was to tide him over. But he couldn't think of a natural way to say it. He found himself overplaying the bumbling boy act, out of his depth, kicking the vacuum cleaner with mock frustration or wrinkling his nose clownishly until Irena laughed, which she usually did.
Lunch for room attendants was in the canteen at two, after the official lunch for visitors and guests. Room attendants had their pick of the leftovers and they could have as much as they liked. For Liam this was by far the best part of the day. He would eat up the sausages and baked beans – there were numberless baked beans – and drink heavily sugared tea while Penny talked to Irena. Janine always brought a packed lunch and sat by herself at another table, looking at her phone. Penny talked about her problems, which multiplied and complexified daily but shared common themes: an ongoing garden dispute with a neighbour; her husband, Derek, who was always up at the betting shop; and a number of sick friends, in varying states of decline, all making outrageous demands on her friendship. On and on she went. Three of them sat at the table but Penny only ever addressed Irena, unless Liam spoke up, which he rarely did. He thought about going to sit with Janine, or possibly taking his own table in the corner, but that might have drawn more attention to himself – and anyway he liked to be close to Irena.
Sometimes Penny would tell stories about work. Bizarre guests and spooky findings she had come upon over the years. She said that soon after she started she found in one of the rooms a dead goat, bagged up and vertical in the wardrobe. Its neck had been cut. On the tea table was a saucepan full of blood. In her account of the story, Penny seemed to think that was enough detail, but Liam had questions. Who was staying in the room? What did she do with the goat carcass? Did she say saucepan? But Penny moved carelessly on to another subject – to Derek or the garden or one of her ever-suffering friends.
Soon after his first payday, Liam was reprimanded for sloppy bed-making. Penny, without her trolley, found him in the corridor and said, "Come with me". She took him to one of the half a dozen rooms he had cleaned that day and pointed to the bed.
"I'm a patient woman, but you're really testing me."
The bedding was not quite square and not quite parallel. Actually it was worse than that. Seeing it now through Penny's eyes, Liam was alarmed by the bumpiness of the duvet and the way the grannyish bed cover touched the floor on one side. A familiar feeling rose up in him. It was a mixture of shame and insolence. He hated Penny for revealing his failure. The first thing he wanted to say was, "Well you do it then". The second was, "Well you do it then, you old bitch". What he ended up saying was,
"I want you to remake these beds, all of them. And I will be checking."
"I've got better things to do, you know."
"Do you even enjoy working here?"
The question was so strange that Liam couldn't begin to guess a reply. Surely she didn't expect him to say yes?
"The problem is you're a typical teenager", said Penny. "How old are you?"
He shrugged. Why give her the satisfaction?
"No work ethic, have you?"
Another question he couldn't answer. Instead he went to the bed cover and dragged it from one end, so it was more or less evenly distributed on each side.
"No, that's not it, give it here", said Penny.
Liam, rigid with anger, watched as she stripped the bed and remade it from scratch.
The next day, a Friday, Penny was off sick. Liam skimmed through the morning doing as little as he could get away with, knowing that Penny wouldn't see the results until Monday, by which point anything untoward could be blamed on the weekend crew.
At lunch in the canteen he went to the usual table and only then realised he would be alone with Irena. She was by the hot metal food containers, ladling cooked tomatoes. Liam tucked into his beans and tried not to look up. He was almost finished within a minute or two because he ate without pausing. She would have sat down by now. He looked up. Women in aprons and hats were taking away the food. He turned towards Janine's table – and there was Irena. The two of them were talking, chummy and smiling, as if this configuration were perfectly natural. Irena had bypassed his table entirely. Did she even see him, hunched over his plate, practically praying? Sheer habit if nothing else would have turned her steps towards him. He could feel himself flushing. The beans were paste in his mouth. Only the thought of the impending weekend saved him from throwing his plate against the wall.
On Monday Liam was paired with Janine. Penny's orders. She gave him a lecture before his shift, about how he was a liability. He needed to match the pace of the other attendants. She didn't want to treat him like a child, she said, but he could not be left alone. He would work with Janine, room by room, on one floor. Crunch time would arrive after Christmas.
"I'm not a cruel person. I'm not going to sack you just before Christmas. But this is your last chance."
So, Janine. Whose voice he had never heard. She handled the bedding while he covered the bathroom, just like his first day. Janine's voice was unexceptional, hardly worth waiting for. Mostly she spoke in monosyllables. A nod, and then, "Good".
Liam was used to seeing razors, deodorants, toothbrushes, shower gels, in combinations of blue, black and silver. But every so often there would be a difference: a lighter room, cooler air, with an atmosphere of talc and the smell of magazines. Not always tidier, but somehow more structured. In the bathroom would be mellow pastel shades of rose and amber, accessories of all shapes, from fat jars to mysterious finger-thin widgets, tacky to the touch. Sometimes there were razors, too, but they were delicate and white, like bird bones, polished and lacquered. Women stayed in these rooms. Janine didn't seem to twig the distinction. She picked apart the beds just the same.
As ever with a woman's room, something – not gallantry, more like fear – made Liam flush the toilet with the lid down before he perused the bowl. Then he changed the towels, wiped from the mirror some toothpaste and a rogue beige smear, and worked on the shower. He always wanted to stand inside the shower and clean from within. When he was alone he occasionally let himself do this, fighting the urge to turn the shower on and soak himself in his work clothes. But Janine was there, so he bent and twisted and breathed heavily. He was really quite unfit compared to Janine and Penny, who were easily three times his age.
Faintly through the walls he heard a buzzing. It became more distinct, like a radio. He noticed the sudden punctuation of television news sound effects. Dun. Dun. Dun-dun.
Janine was already leaving for the room opposite. This was how they made their way down the corridors, zig-zagging. The television seemed louder now – and gradually louder still, the volume increasing a step at a time.
"What about that room?" said Liam.
"Next", said Janine.
"Sounds like there's someone in there."
Liam knocked. Too quietly. He didn't want any confrontation. Why shouldn't the guest stay in the room? Maybe they were having a bad day. On one of his dithering journeys to the store cabinet off the main atrium, Liam had once taken a detour and walked past the building's largest conference room. The double doors were ajar and Liam glimpsed a scene of infinite blandness: a mass of ties and white shirts, hands reaching for plastic cups of water, a large screen with the words "Disrupting the Product Cycle", and a grey man behind a dais pausing at the end of a question, before saying, "Don't all speak up at once".
"Did you knock?" said Janine, when Liam brought in some fresh towels.
"Yeah. No response."
Janine went to the door – the television was raucously loud now – and thumped with the full weight of her forearm. A crash, a cascading clatter like plates falling from a shelf, came from inside the room. There was a voice, too, distinct from the TV, one side of a frantic conversation. Janine rolled her eyes and said, "Leave him."
It was nearing the end of the afternoon. Outside there was light snow. Liam dreaded trudging to the bus stop, but was relieved when Janine said, "Finished".
"We can leave?"
"I'll do it."
"There's an hour to go."
"I'll do it."
"Will you tell Penny I did a good job?"
Janine looked at him with disbelieving eyes.
The next day, a wet and sludgy morning, Liam stood in the janitor's office with freezing feet and tried to figure out if he'd missed something. The schedule wasn't in its usual place, or anywhere else that he could see. All four trolleys were in the alcove. There had been no one at reception except a security guard, whistling atonally at the desk.
Liam checked his phone for Penny's number. Was it worth calling? It would be another mark against his name. Too stupid even to know when he was on holiday. He was gradually becoming certain that he wasn't supposed to be there. Obviously there wouldn't be any events this close to Christmas. Janine, yesterday – should she have told him? More likely Penny had said something one lunchtime while Liam wasn't paying attention.
Buses were on a holiday schedule. It would be another two hours before the next one. Dad was at the garage. He didn't want to tell him his mistake, couldn't face the ribbing. Liam registered an almost nocturnal sense of hopelessness. The endless corridors and empty rooms brought to mind a recurring nightmare where he was looking for something, but didn't know what, or where to find it, or why it was urgent. He just knew he had to keep looking.
With the master key in his hand he chose a door and opened it. Room A6. The bed had the characteristic precision of a Penny job. A7 was the same. No way he could match this consistency. There was something sad about it, Penny's futile dedication. Why go to the effort, day after day?
On the next floor up Liam looked in on the rooms he been through with Janine. Penny liked to fold back the duvet and bed cover, presumably as a gesture of invitation. Janine folded back the cover but not the duvet. The personal touch. There was space for improvisation, style. In the bathroom Liam discovered his own trademark: he had neglected to replace the soaps. He sat down on the toilet in B28 and winced at his incompetence. The toilet roll was backwards on its holder, so that you pulled it from the wall-side. He took off the roll, turned it round, and hooked it on again. His feet were still cold and wet. The heating was off in all the rooms.
When he turned on the shower it seemed recklessly loud. He hopped out to the corridor and counted to ten. Still no one around. Back in the bathroom he took off his clothes and stepped in the shower. He washed with the scentless miniature shower gel and let the gorgeous, lashing heat fall over his shoulders.
After the bliss of hot water the cold was even more bracing. Quickly he dried himself. The towel was ridiculously small – was this another of his mistakes? He dressed and waited for the mirror to clear itself of steam. Gradually he emerged in the glass. He was here on business. Just another guy providing for his family. Important meetings. Money deals. A car waiting for him out the back – low, sleek and brooding among the Fiestas. Flirtatious talk with the women, over adult drinks. The weight of his car keys hanging like a pistol in his inside pocket.
He took himself to the bedroom and flopped onto the bed. The phone on the side table shone with promise. He picked it up and said, "Champagne". Then: "Burger and chips." Then: "No – steak." The phone responded with a quiet seashell whoosh.
He had exhausted the room.
It was only when he was locking the door that he remembered the noise from yesterday. The TV, the crash, the raised voice. It was somewhere in the middle of the floor. He found it on his third try.
Inside it was warmer than the other rooms, in a stuffy sort of way. There was an abstract, unresolved tension, as though the occupant could return at any moment. Cups and saucers had been broken and then arranged into a jagged pile on the tea table. The TV was half off the wall. He thought of the dead goat in the wardrobe – this one was empty, but for the bare wooden hangers. On the floor was a nearly empty bottle of Bell's whisky. He unscrewed the lid and, catching a whiff, coughed pathetically. Then he experimented with a short sip. What would he have to do – how would he have to grow – in order to become the kind of person who could appreciate such a taste? Clamping his nose, he opened his gullet for more. And for about thirty seconds afterwards he was on the verge of vomiting. He went to the toilet and fell to his knees – no, bad idea: a freshly daubed skidmark provoked a heave and a mouthful of stomach acid. Stumbling out, he almost fell on the bed, but thought better of it.
On the bed was a laptop. Liam opened it and typed "password" into the password box. Then "password1". He tried "Password" and "password123" and "Password123". Then he hammered the keyboard with his fingers like a movie hacker, half-expecting the screen to break into columns of text.
It was possible the guest was a professor, or some grandmaster of business. Liam thought of the grey man at the dais and his aura of disappointment. Or maybe he wasn't disappointed. Maybe he liked his job, whatever it was.
The smell of shit was still up Liam's nose, somehow worse now. Liam wanted to open, or smash – or throw himself out of – the window so he could breathe freely again. He could open it from the bottom, but only enough to bring in the faintest wisp of air. The snow had stopped, at least. He still had an hour to kill. Most of his friends would be... what? What were they doing? They were already lost to him. No-one understood why he had left school at the earliest opportunity – except Dad, who had done the same thing in his time and encouraged him, goaded him, down the family path. Liam could have gone straight to the garage as an apprentice mechanic but, simply because he had a say in the matter, he refused. He loved cars – but was that really up to him? Or was it just another part of the inheritance, along with the pale eyes, the thin colourless hair, the stumpy stature? Either way, of his own free choice he had landed up in a soiled hotel room two days before Christmas, sharing in an unknown man's desperation, so maybe Dad had the right idea after all.
The window wouldn't open any wider. Liam leaned his forehead against it like a convict, like someone who could never leave. In January he would turn seventeen. Outside, a car stopped at the traffic lights near the first of a series of roundabouts. Liam couldn't quite make out the model. A two seater, black, rear spoiler – and loud. Even at this distance he could hear its rasping engine. The roads were otherwise empty. Seventeen. He could feel it pulling at him, the boredom ahead, the suction of it, more like falling than anything else. The lights were fixed at red. A perfect stillness – then a gush of steam from the back of the car, a rip of wheels on wet ground, and off it flew. A second later, the lights blinked green.
Benjamin Wal is a writer and playwright from Bedford, England.