Saturday, March 14, 2009


She recognises the handwriting immediately. I’m at some hotel, it says. My room overlooks the rubbish bins. The place smells like something’s rotting. I’ll write again when I know more.

Her heart gives a forward bound, as though starting. A fly buzzes on the sill, punching above its weight. The smell of baking bread forces its way in from the bakery across the road. A label on her cotton top scrapes the back of her neck.

The glaring white shimmer of light on the white page. The familiar writing, its immediacy. Words from him at last.

Now she begins to shiver, unfrozen but suddenly so cold. Her teeth chatter. From nowhere the phrase hot water bottle, an image of pink rubber, an imagined feel of intense heat. A memory from childhood. No one owns hot water bottles now.

Her socked feet drag on the floor. Dust mice roll lazily in the drafts coming under the door. Lifting a corner of the bulky quilt. Sliding under it like a knife into water – quickly, cleanly, and down into a thousand-year sleep.

Much later, watching water boiling in a saucepan. (The kettle burnt out weeks ago, soon after he went. She hadn’t been able to stir, and the kettle had whistled itself dry and shat out its base.) Now – watching small bubbles appear around the water’s edge, the gathering of impetus, the sudden rush of boiling – she blows out the flame with the gusto of a birthday girl. Changing her mind, she switches off the gas. Sometimes better not to follow things to their logical conclusion.

A telephone call. Say nothing to anyone about his letter until there is some sort of plan. "Lisa, I’m not up to visitors. It’s been one of those days."

That night a vision of him between the thighs of Erin. Torment. A sense of betrayal like claws dragged down a blackboard, on and on. The claws do not stop; the blackboard does not end. What can you do?

A rash on the back of the neck. Miniscule, raised red dots, painless. Maybe it’s from sleeping between dirty sheets.

The next day another letter.

People aren’t friendly here. There’s a woman who seems to be in charge, who allocates the rooms. She looks familiar, but I can’t place her. Someone said she owns the hotel.

I can’t get used to the smell. I think it’s boiling mince and rubbish bins and disappointment and old sex, but I’m not sure. I asked her for another room because I can’t sleep with the stink of the rubbish. She said, "You can’t just turn up here out of nowhere and expect the penthouse suite."

Inhaling the scent of the ink – that familiar blue, peacock blue, eyes-of-Erin blue. Peacock-blue washable. A tear, a smear.

Her own eyes speckled brown and grey. Sparrow-coloured. Dark-lashed. Unusual. Always her best feature until he’d said one day, "You could get some coloured lenses, you know. That gorgeous cut-glass blue."

A loud pounding on the door. The shadows long across the floor. Where’s the day? An omelette left outside, with little honeyed carrot wheels and a note from Liz. Darling, you need to think less about him and more about yourself.

Like that’s going to happen. Liz dispenses truisms like Oscar Wilde throwing out bon mots. You have to eat more food to keep your immunity up. Don’t drink; you only feel worse next day. If you cry too much, the skin on your eyes starts to go. It’s supposed to hurt; that way you know you’re human. Have a good cry; there, there, better out than in. The only way round it is through it.

Night, day, night, day. Shadows across the floor. Trips to the toilet; no pants to pull up. A boiling saucepan and scalding tea. The rash creeps around to the front of the neck.

There’s a state of consciousness into which you can drop whereby there’s stillness and no time. Just a holding still. You might be cupping a mug or have your hairbrush in your hand, but suddenly the shadows are all that much longer, and there’s a pounding on the door, and someone like Liz or Therese or even Paul the naturopath from flat 6 must be told, "No, I’m perfectly OK. I just need to be alone if it’s no trouble."

A foil-covered plate being set down. A full casserole dish. People are so kind. And once Paul saying gently through the door, "You were calling out; we thought you were being attacked."

The next day another letter.

I’ve forgotten how to sleep. It’s the smell of this place. Someone told me yesterday there’s a train station nearby. I walked and walked and kept getting lost. Remember my good shoes, the black chisel-toed ones with the narrow fit? For some stupid reason they’re the only ones I have with me. I can hardly walk in them.

I forgot the directions I’d been given. I couldn’t find anyone who spoke my language. No train station, just mean little houses looking onto other mean little houses – streets and streets of them. It’s the most depressing place I’ve ever been.

Erin not mentioned – does he miss her? The visions of them together are violent with passion. Other people’s imagined passion is always full of abandon, lacking conscious thought or anxieties about cleanliness or contraception or performance. Is that why he can’t sleep, because he thinks with unbridled intensity of Erin and longs for her secret places? If that’s it, he’s too polite to say so.

I need to get home to you. Today I found the train station. There was a queue. A train was in. I got to the ticket window and asked for a ticket. I’d left my money at the hotel. The train pulled out and they closed the tracks for repairs. No more trains for a month. Someone said to try my luck at the docks.

Does he even remember Erin? Or did the shock of his death drive her out of mind, wreck the spindly little fibres that held her – last in, first out – in his brain? Has she been wiped?

I long for the sound of your voice close to my ear, for a sight of your face, always so beautiful to me. I am more alone than I can say.

Last night something terrible happened. The woman I told you about came to my room with a couple of men. Now I understand what people mean by under duress. I asked when it was over when I would be allowed to leave, and she laughed. She seems to hate me, and I have no idea why.

(Oh, you could tell him; you certainly could.)

The rash burns as blood pulses through the inflamed skin on her neck and face. Parts of it have begun to weep a clear, slippery fluid that she blots with tissues only for it to collect again in a fine film. Could it be from wearing dirty clothes?

She spends too long in front of the bathroom mirror, fascinated by the rash and by the fluid that collects on her skin, even as she watches and blots. There are minuscule, raised dots now all over her hands.

She had a friend once, Sylvia. When Sylvia was angry about something she would break out in a rash. It was impossible not to stare, fascinated, as the red spots traveled up out of Sylvia’s cleavage, up her neck, over her face like quick-marching hordes. If you hadn’t known better, you would have sworn that Sylvia’s rash were being painted on by some invisible internal companion, a voiceless other who signaled desperately to the outside world.

Another letter.

I found the docks today, but no one I called to on the ships could understand me. They shrugged and held up their hands. Or they yelled to their friends, who came to the railing to laugh at me.

I went back to the hotel; I had nowhere else to go. The cold after dark cuts right through you – you could die of hypothermia if you were out too long. At least the hotel is heated, not that I can get warm these days. But I dread the nights.

Paul from flat 6 taps on the door, bucket in hand. He looks at her face and neck, too close for comfort, and says, "Have you seen anyone about that?"

"Yes," she lies. "It’s nerves." (Just as Sylvia once said to her.)

He comes into the narrow hallway and sets down his bucket. "We can smell your flat all over the building, my darling. It’s frightening the customers away. But don’t worry, I used to clean houses in college. For all the rich bitches."

He looks again at her face. "We have to lessen your allergenic load," he says, taking spray bottles, sponges and cloths from the bucket. "The place is crawling with dust mites about to meet their maker."

He glances quickly at her. "Sorry."

"It doesn’t matter," she says. Because it doesn’t. Why would he think it would?

"I’ll get started if you don’t mind," he says.

The cleaning takes four hours, through which she sleeps. When she wakes, it is to the smell of citrus and a cup of tea in a clean mug, and Paul saying "All done, babe. OK if I pop this down here?"

There is no way to leave. Today I tried to walk out of the town through what I thought were the outskirts, but they went on and on until the mountains seemed further away than ever and I gave up hope. My shoes had rubbed off the skin on my toes and heels, and my socks were soaked with blood. A police car with two policemen in it picked me up. I offered to do anything if they’d drive me out of town. They drove me back to the hotel. The woman who runs the hotel was waiting out the front. The policemen seemed to be friends of hers. She laughed because she saw I was shaking. Her laugh was so familiar: wish I could remember where I know her from. I miss you so much I can’t bear it.

The words layer the smooth, creamy page. She runs her fingertips over it. The texture of the page all down the cheek, over the mouth. A sudden pulling back. Skin of Erin.

The mouth of Erin, open to receive him. This image crowds out the rest. All you’d been able to say as tears and snot had coursed down your face after they’d given you the news was, "Don’t let Erin near the funeral. She’s not to come to the funeral."

"No, no – of course not," people had uniformly said, some obviously appalled by her. She couldn’t explain to them that the vision of Erin was what simultaneously sank her and kept her from sinking. The rest – his death – was beyond, in unnameable darkness. Finally, after days, Evie had said, "Erin’s got a right to grieve too. You’re not going to control even his death, are you?"

One by one, all the friends had said it in their own way. (Erin obviously did her best work on the phone – what she didn’t do in the backs of cabs or in stairwells or between illicit, midafternoon sheets.) One friend called it "honouring the man he really was, not the one you wanted him to be." Another said, "It’s time to be a big girl about these things, darling." Another said, "So what if she was doing him? That gives you something in common."

In the end the only thing to say was, "All right, then. She can come to the service; just don’t let her near the wake."

But Erin had sobbed uncontrollably through the service, loud and vivid in a pew up the back. And when the time had come for all the cars to leave, certain hands had been laid on certain arms, and pressure had been brought to bear, and before you could say in flagrante delicto, Erin was sitting across from her in the big hired car and wailing "I thought he’d fallen asleep on top of me" in a voice that could have cut tin.

They’ve posted guards at the front of the hotel. No one is allowed to go out or come in. The woman who owns the hotel listens outside my door. I can feel how she hates me.

The nights are unspeakable. The days are long times spent waiting in dread.

What am I doing here? I remember the blue of your eyes, like blue cut crystal. I can’t imagine why I would ever leave you. Do you know? Can you tell me? I don’t know if you get these letters, or why I’m even allowed to write them. The woman who owns the hotel probably doesn’t post them.

The scent of the ink is sharp, unpleasant. Blood pulses through her hands and neck and face. Paul has given her some cream for the rash. It’s stopped the weeping, and bit by bit will claim back each fraction of skin – each cell, each patch – until the rash is gone and all is clear again.

Clothes that were wet six weeks ago – his clothes, washed that last morning as he got ready for work – are now a dry browned crust in the washing-machine tub. A fly buzzes on the sill, on its back, near the end. Through the cloudy glass, she watches the comings and goings at the bakery across the road – the last customers slipping in and out under the lowered awning in the sun’s final rays. She watches her hand move the pen over the page, over the creamy white paper, recording his desperate words.


LETTERS FROM THE HOTEL earned an Honorable Mention in the 2008 Competition.


Glenys Osborne lives in Melbourne, Australia. She has received various awards for fiction writing, including First Place in the 2008 and Second Place in the 2007 Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition. She also twice received second prize in the Age (newspaper) Short Story Competition, and the 2007 Marian Eldridge award. Glenys writes early in the morning, teaches editing at masters level, and is fiction editor for the creative and literary journal Etchings.