Aldon Hotel, Berlin, 2002

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The housemaid hears a roar from the street, stiffens, sprays window cleaner onto the mirror and watches her arm clear away the fluid like a windscreen wiper. She plunges the brush in and out of the toilet bowl, frothing the water into a lather of soap and bubbles. Flushes, folds the loo paper into a diamond head. Then walks to the window and gazes at the crowd gathered below on the street. Plaques of cardboard: Michael We Love You; Michael Forever; Hallo Michael. She presses her forehead against the window – a dull thud. The red jackets in the crowd stand out like drops of blood. The timer on her mobile rings. she slips her hand into her smock and turns it off.

Time to do the next room. Time to meet Michael.

She pushes the trolley along the corridor. The wheels bobble over the dense weave of the carpet, the cleaning products wobble in their holders. A receptionist clicks past, without even saying hello, not a glance or a smile. In her generic cleaning smock, the housemaid is at the bottom of the hotel feudal system, the faint sticky sheen of sweat on her back, her feet damp inside her Mary Jane shoes and ankle socks. She feels like turning around and yelling – Hi! – just to make a point. Instead, she wipes her hands on her smock, makes sure her bun is in place and knocks on the door.

She waits outside his suite. Knocks again. Two assertive knocks.

“Who is it?”

“House-cleaning.’

A bodyguard opens the door.

The curtains are drawn, the door to the balcony closed. From outside, the din of the crowd. Discarded crisp wrappers and a lonesome banana skin have been left draped over one of the antique tables like a still life.

“No hoovering,” the bodyguard returns to his armchair.

The children are curled up on the couch watching cartoons on Sky. The boy sits beneath a blanket, holding the remote, the sound down low, his sister beside him.

The housemaid parks the trolley, picks up the rubbish and starts throwing it gently into a bag, wincing every time the plastic rustles.

The bodyguard lets out a snore and the children giggle.

“What are you doing?” the boy asks.

“I’m cleaning.”

“Do you work for our daddy?”

“No. I work for the hotel.”

The boy plugs his thumb in his mouth.

“Don’t do that,” the girl slaps his hand away.

“You hit me,” he says. “I’m telling daddy you hit me.”

A chant from the street: Michael, Michael, Michael.

The girl slips off the couch, walks over to the balcony window, draws the curtain back and a bolt of daylight crosses the floor.

The fans scream.

She presses her palm against the glass. “Where are we?”

She seems at once terribly young and incredibly ancient, like the Buddha.

“Berlin,” the housemaid says. “In Germany.”

The girl lets the curtain fall back into place.

“Where are you from?” she asks.

“England.”

“We’ve been there. We’re from America,” the girl tells her.

“I know.” The housemaid smiles.

“Have you been to America?”

“No, but I’ve seen it on TV.”Have you been to our house?’

“Have you been to our house?” the girl asks.

“No, but I’ve seen it on TV.”

“Where do you live?” the girl asks. “Here?”

“No,” the housemaid says. “I don’t live in a hotel. I live in a bedsit.”

“What’s a bedsit?”

“It’s a room with a bed.”

 

“Can I have a Pepsi?” the boy asks. “Please?”

The housemaid takes one from the mini bar, opens the can with a hiss.

“Thank you,” he holds the can with both hands.

“Michael, Michael, Michael.”

“Daddy’s fans,” the girl says. He finishes his Pepsi and burps.

The boy finishes his Pepsi and burps.

They giggle.

“Ssshh.” The housemaid glances at the sleeping bodyguard.

“Look.” The girl reaches between the plush cushions on the sofa and draws out her pink veil as though she is a magician. “This is mine.”

“My one is blue,” the boy says. “But I hate it.”

“Why?” The housemaid asks.

“It tickles,” he says.

“We only wear them outside,” the girl tells her. “Because of the germs.”

The housemaid nods. “I know a lot about germs.”

The boy gets up and puts his Pepsi can in the bin on her trolley. “Can we help you today?”

“Yes, but only if you promise to be quiet.”

The children scour the room looking for rubbish to put in the bin.

The housemaid pulls out the glass cleaner as though it’s a gun. “Hands up.” Shoots the trigger at the mirror. “Bang. Bang.”

The boy reaches for the spray gun. “I want to do it.”

She lets him douse the mirror then she takes a dry cloth from the trolley and wipes away the streaks and spills.

The girl stands behind her reflection staring. “I think you’re pretty.”

“I think you’re pretty too,” the housemaid says.

“Am I pretty?” the boy asks.

“Yes, very pretty,” the housemaid tells him.

He grins.

Next, she takes out the pine cleaner.

“Do you want to smell it?”

The boy takes a whiff. “It smells like hair dye.”

The housemaid squirts the fumy pine cleaner onto the antique walnut dining table. “This is for the table to make the wood shine.” The children doodle ribbons and swirls across the surface of the table as though it is an Etch-a-sketch.

“You shouldn’t do that,” The housemaid says.

“Why?” the boy asks.

“Because you’ll get sticky fingers. No, don’t eat it!” She snatches his hand from his mouth.

“I’ve got sticky hands.” The girl holds her palms out.

“Me too,” the boy says.

“Exactly. Come and wash them off,” the housemaid says. “Quickly, before I get into trouble,”

They follow her, giggling. In the bathroom, she runs the tap and the children rinse their hands in the sink. Every towel has been left straddled in a heap on the floor. Why do rich people always do this? She sighs. “Are you all right? The boy asks.”Yes, just tired. Do you really want to help me?” The housemaid sends the children back to the cleaning trolley for fresh towels and the wrapped hotel soaps. She squirts toilet cleaner under the rim. Turns the bidet off and on. Presses the toilet paper into a diamond head.

The boy stands in the doorway. “I can use the toilet now because I am a big boy.”

“Of course, you are.”

She takes the towels from the children, folds and arranges them, rippling the edges of the towel on the top of the stack to form a rosette. She places a little soap on the fold.

“Why do you do that?” the girl asks.

“To make it look pretty,” the housemaid says.

“Can I do it?”

“No, it’s too difficult for little fingers and I need to get going soon.”

“Why?” the girl asks.

“Because I am working.”

“Why?”

“Because I have to make money.”

“Why?” the girl asks.

“Just because,” the housemaid sighs. “You’ll understand one day. Or maybe you won’t.”

She bends over the enormous bath and wipes it with a used towel.

The timer on her mobile rings.

“I have to go,” the housemaid says.

“No,” the girl tugs at her arm. “You have to come and Blanket first.”

“What about your father? Won’t he wake up?”

“Uhuh.  Daddy is a deep sleeper,” she says.

The housemaid stands on the threshold of the master bedroom, looks over her shoulder at the bodyguard still slumbering on the armchair.

The girl opens the door. The heavy curtains are shut, the air in the bedroom thick with sleep. The housemaid blinks. Mauve shadows waver across the floor. Michael’s pale chest glimmers, the sheets are halfway down his body, receding like a tide.

The girl tiptoes towards the cot.

“This is our brother,” she whispers.

The housemaid peers down.

The baby has its arms raised above its head, eyelashes twitch. A daft smile on its little face.

The girl reaches her arm through the bars and strokes her brother’s cheek. “So soft,” she says.

“Yes,” the housemaid whispers.

“Do you have a baby?”

The housemaid shakes her head. “I’m too young to have a baby. I’m only nineteen.”

“I’m five,” the girl says.

“And I’m three, I’m a big boy,” the little boy says.

The housemaid grips the side of the railing and her muscles tense.

Michael exhales in the dark.

The housemaid says. “I have to go.”

In the lounge, the boy says, “but I want an apple.”

“I’m running late.” She plucks an apple from the fruit bowl.

“You have to take the skin off first,” the girl says. “Daddy says the skin is yucky.”

The housemaid peels off the skin in a long curling spiral, but as she rounds a corner the knife slips and takes a flick of skin from her thumb. A drop of blood, royally red, runs down the crevice of her palm.

The girl leans over. “Do you want me to put a bandage on it?”

“No. I’ll do it. Just keep away.” The housemaid crosses the suite to the trolley, snatches the medical kit from the bottom shelf and peels out a plaster.

She stands there shaking for a second; the knowledge is still so fresh. She is storing the disease inside herself, like an apple containing its pips.

The boy plugs his thumb back in his mouth.

The girl hands her the pink veil. “Here a present for you. For outside,” she says.

“Thank you,” She can’t look at them again.

“Goodbye.” she bundles her cleaning trolley out of the room, walks back along the soft-carpeted corridor and into the grey service lift. Presses the button for the basement, the lift starts its descent. She slides her hand into her pocket, touches the veil. Soft.

*

On her day off she hires a bike and rides around the city, bundled up in her duffel coat, the pink veil tied around her neck as a scarf. The cool air whizzes by and while she is in motion, she feels strong and healthy. She loops in and out of the park, the wind stinging her ears. She bikes to the Jewish Memorial, loses herself walking through the city block, the ground undulating beneath her feet. She is dwarfed by the architecture, the history of the city itself. Here she is no one.

The sunlight is faint on her skin and she pauses catching her breath, taking a sip of water from the tap in the park, bike propped between her legs. A dog barks and runs through the grass, leaves stir on the Linden trees.

She pushes off again.

The veil comes undone and she stops to do it up.

“Hallo.” Smiling, cigarette between his fingers, teeth tinted yellow like his hair. The doorman from the Aldon.

“Hi.” Legs astride her bike, pom-poms dangling against her chest.

“Can I offer you a cigarette?”

“Sure,” she takes one and he leans over to light it.

“Smoking and cycling,” she says. “Not very healthy.”

“Ah well.”

More smiling.

“Do you want to get a coffee?”

“Okay.” She dismounts and walks beside him, the bicycle spokes lit by the last of the afternoon sun.

They sit at an outdoor café, the ashtray filling up. He has been at the Aldon too long, is saving to go to London. She was born and bred in London and has just left.

“What brought you to Berlin?”

“I wanted to go somewhere different.”

“Do you think you will stay long?”

She pushes the espresso cup away, gazes at the black-lipped rim.

“Another?” He looks around for a waiter.

“No,” she shakes her head. “I need to get the bike back soon.”

She can feel his blue eyes on her like water rushing from the tap.

“So, I suppose I have to ask. Everyone has been talking about it. What do you think about Michael?”

“The baby incident?”

“Yah.” He lights a new cigarette.

“I guess it was pretty stupid,” she says.

“I guess.” He nods.

“But sometimes people do stupid things.”

“True.” She can feel his interest hotting up.

The light is cooler now, the sun going down, a group of cyclists race past, their faces streaked with shadows.

“Are you working tomorrow?” she asks.

“Yah.”

Pigeons swoon above their heads as he walks her back to the rented cycle stand. Then they turn and smile at each other.

“Then I’ll see you tomorrow,” he says.

“Yes, tomorrow,” she says.