Veronika was happy with just two beds, two rooms. We left the other rooms as they were – she didn’t need to clean them every day. I’d hear her bumping in at eight o’clock in the morning, carrying her basket and the white, white sheets. The linens. The towels. Then I’d hear the bumping as she got the broom and vacuum. Her bucket. Sometimes she’d have a word with me – there were her blue eyes. I’d tell her which rooms were occupied. Just two, that first morning, as I said.
And then she would start up the stairs. They were narrow and steep. I’d see her thick figure, the bulk of her basket, as she made her way.
I’d slept my few hours in the cot behind the folding door. I never slept very well. I had the small light, and my book. The glow of the clock. Until just after midnight there was the dim, dull beat of music from the bar next door. Once in a while the bar door would swing open onto the street, and the beat was louder – for a moment. A friend of mine came by once, late. He lounged at my desk, telling me I needed a break; a drink. I didn’t really care, I liked the quiet. And I needed the job; he knew that too.
Usually I never thought much about the guests we had, sleeping in their rooms one or two floors above. Two floors of rooms, seven rooms in all. But she – that guest - well, I was aware of her, that’s all.
She was two floors up, on the top floor. Veronika told me there was a pile of books on the table in her room, and a pile of white pages: papers. Veronika tells me funny things sometimes. I think she, too, was interested in that woman. Or girl. Was she a girl, because it was hard to say how old she was. A woman, of course. But a young sort of woman. Far over thirty, certainly. I couldn’t really tell.
The first morning, she came down at 7:15. I was hardly up myself, I was folding my bedding away. She was fully dressed, she had her bag. Sorry, she said, I don’t have a watch. Do you have the time? She spoke not a word of our language: just English, only English. And there was no clock in her room, it is true. She smiled. I smiled back. I don’t think we’d ever had a woman guest alone. We had couples, families in the summer, sometimes a man alone for a night or two. But a woman alone, and for sixteen nights. No. So she puzzled me from the first.
And after I had pointed out to her the hall clock we have, above my desk, I’d see her eyes alight there first thing, whenever she came in from outside, or downstairs from her room. I don’t know a person who manages like that without a watch. But she managed. The day she came down at 7:15 it was too early of course: we didn’t serve breakfast until 8, so she just said goodbye, I’ll see you later, and out she went, into the quiet street.
I was never on the street at that time, but I know it must be silent – quiet as can be. The winding streets and their paving, the curving stone walls, and a certain gold glint from the morning sun. I imagined it. And her shoes, not heels that would click and ring on the stones, but shoes with no heels, that made no sound, at all. And an hour at least she was gone, because I was making coffee for the Germans in the breakfast room, when she came back. And a slight sheen of sweat on her upper lip – she smiled, hello, as she came in.
And she sat at the window – always, she sat at the window – where the morning light slanted in across the gleam of the table; the iron grille alongside. And I brought her coffee: the milk foamed on top. There was her notebook and pen then, that she sat with, the white pages and pages of the notebook. They turned and fluttered every while.
On the third day she was here she asked if we had laundry service. No, no, sorry – no, I told her. She went out, as usual. I worried about it all day. That afternoon, when she was in before leaving again for the evening, I told her we could give her a pail, and I wrote on a piece of paper the name of a soap powder: Skalbania. She should show that piece of paper at the shop, I said. And I told her where the shop was. She smiled. She had white teeth, quite even.
Veronika told me all her clothes, hanging damply in the bathroom now, were white – a cream-coloured T-shirt, once. Her underclothes: white. Veronika told me then a large bottle of water stood next to the pile of papers and books. And an orange, the next time. Veronika could get on your nerves. Veronica comes and goes with the sheets.
I sleep on my cot. The time blinks and glows on my clock (the small clock that sits next to my bed, not the large hall clock whose black hands move, imperceptibly, and which the woman, now, watches, as I watch her). Our building – its walls, its steep stairs – sleeps. Does the woman sleep, in the cool white sheets. There is a high window in her room, under the sloping roof. I saw it once. It opens with an iron clasp, and it is open now, I am sure. There is no breeze. Just the dark roof with its tiles, that slopes steeply, and the narrow street below.
The Germans, I think, are tired from their day. Their day of sightseeing, tramping, tramping through the streets. They sleep too.
Some mornings later – we had some Finnish people staying, by then - I asked her, as she drank her coffee, what she was doing here, staying in Vilnius. Politely I asked her, of course. Actually what I said to her was: are you a writer, because I see you writing in your notebook. Yes, I’m doing a course in Vilnius, she said, and she smiled again. I smiled too, and then I told her I was studying at the university. Literature. Ah, she said, I saw you reading a book I know well. The book, my place kept with a bookmark, was always next to me at the reception desk. It had a cream cover, and writing in black type: “J.P. Sartre.” I supposed she was more observant, less oblivious, then, than she appeared. We both smiled, again. I had to bring coffee to the Finnish family – make them eggs. She never had eggs.
And she went out at night, too. Every night. Where she went, I do not know. She would stay in her room for an hour, change her clothes, then go out again at six. I used to imagine that one night she would come back with someone – a friend; or a man. But no, no one ever came back with her, at all. This pleased me greatly. This meant she was alone two floors above me, as I was alone, for the long night.
I would settle with my book. Perhaps she did the same, with a book of hers. The pages turned. They turned so gently. I’d close my book. Of course I had some work to do: answer the telephone; answer questions from the Finnish man; set out the breakfast cutlery, gleaming in the half-light of the dining room. And then, after midnight, I went to sleep on my cot.
I could sense the sleepers above me. Or should I say, I sensed her. It was a strange intimacy I felt: those long hours in the stillness, and I, her guardian in the breathing dark. She was our guest, after all. But her foreignness, her aloneness, intrigued me. She was a bird – a large, exotic bird – come to stay. I had, at all costs, to make her comfortable, to take care of her. I fell strangely in love with her.
I would fall asleep, once with an image of white feathers, closely overlain. The feathers rustled and rustled. Then they rustled softly again, like a dress. It was a dress from long ago, like no dress I ever saw: it had folds and folds, it rustled and rustled. (But she wore no dress.)
And then I started to think and think about what it was she was writing, in that notebook of hers, with the white, white pages. One night I dreamed of the pages. I conjured them, page after page: they contained everything. Then I dreamed they fluttered, loose. They fluttered and fluttered. They were birds, themselves, and they whirled and twirled. Then they flew away.
Veronika bumping in, and her basket, in the cold morning light, would bring me back. My head was thick with feathers, as though I’d slept not at all.
And one night, as I lay in the cot, I was seized with the frightening idea I should go up the stairs, those narrow stairs, two flights of them, my hand resting on the cool wall, and go to her door. I would tap, tap on the door, in the semi-darkness (a small light on, across the narrow hall). It was a blue door, wood. I could hear my tap, tap.
The white sheets on the bed; the open silled window, its iron clasp; the bottle of water silvering in the dark. Her soft, even breath. I grew faint.
But of course I never saw all that, never did it. I lay like a mouse in my cot, unmoving. Or perhaps I trembled, in fear.
She left, as she’d planned, on the seventeenth day. There was a taxi that came, I saw it. I felt a bird had flown, I felt I’d not kept her, I felt strangely bereft. I knew for certain then this job was no good for me. But the job paid for my books, my studies, everything.
I stayed. Veronika, too, remains. She gets older and older. I hear the bump, bump, as she climbs the stairs – her basket, her bucket, her broom. She still tells me things, about what she sees in the rooms. I continue my studies. And I dream: I dream of white pages, pages and pages, that flutter and fall. They fall like snow.
And indeed it snows here now, too. The flakes fall and fall, they fall like pages. But what’s written on the pages, I cannot say.
Dawn Promislow was born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa, and has lived in Toronto since 1987. She has published a debut collection of stories Jewels and Other Stories (Toronto: TSAR, 2010).
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