In a bathroom on the seventh floor, Vera was holding herself under the water and trying to count to one hundred. Her knuckles were white with effort and pressed over the sides of the bath. The bathroom was tiled in polished bone enamel. The dripping of the tap broke the humming silence under the water’s surface as droplets plipped in time with the seconds. Beneath the water, she was mouthing seventy-one, seventy-two, seventy-three, seventy-four.
A gulp bubbled from Vera’s mouth and she crashed through the surface. Her desperate
gasp for air echoed off the tiles, as loud as off cathedral walls. Water sloshed over the sides of the
tub. She hunched in the bath water for fourteen droplets. Arms crossed over her chest, she slowly
drew her fingernails down from shoulders to elbow, leaving red tracks on flushed skin. It wasn’t
going to work. Seventy-four was her record, and she had long lost track of how many minutes she had been trying. Water slewed onto the slippery tile floor as she stood and wrapped herself in the linen bathrobe hung from a door hook. She slid into the flimsy slippers, too big for her feet, and wrung out her hair, usually brown but now slick black with moisture. There were no mirrors here. She imagined she looked lifeless. She reached for the bathroom door.
The en suite bedroom was plain and comfortable without being comforting. It contained a
queen-size bed with starched red sheets, neatly made. The ripped sheets from yesterday - or the
day before - had been replaced. She had watched the silent cleaner change them earlier. The
middle-aged woman, with a short haircut like Vera’s mum, refused to answer any questions. A
small desk against the opposite wall, a simple wooden chair, a blank television screen fixed
above. The brown carpet and off-white walls were engineered to camouflage any grime from the
guests but did not hide the yellowing corners of the ceiling or the frayed carpet curling at the
edges of the skirting board. A no-smoking sign had been hammered up, crooked, above the bed.
A water-crinkled guest book and a blunt pencil lay next to an old-style telephone on the bedside
table, which was dead. The air smelled of cloying lemon-scented cleaning products over an
unpleasant staleness. Tall windows took up an entire side of the room, which looked out onto
another brown-grey wall of the same building. There was no way to open them, and no balcony.
The glass was shatterproof. Vera’s smudged handprints on the glass gleamed in the pearly light
from outside which never seemed to change. She had tried everything in this room.
She turned the numbered key in the lock and pressed her shoulder against the heavy
wooden door. There did not seem to be any lights or windows overhead in the hallway, but the
passage was illuminated with a synthetic glow. To her right were thirteen wooden doors and the
stairwell down to the lobby and reception. To her left, doors upon doors stretched along the
hallway which disappeared around a corner. The lift was heard whirring somewhere in the body
of the building like a metallic organ. The cleaner’s trolley clanked steadily a few floors below.
Vera froze. A foreign sound like faint hammering was coming from down the corridor.
She hesitated, then started to move down the passageway of numbered doors. She felt panic
washing against the inside of her skull like tepid water, threatening to overflow, as she blindly
followed the numbers. Some way down the corridor there was sliver of darkness between a door
and the wall. The regular hammering noise had morphed into a hollow knocking. Her brain felt
like wet cake, her vision shivering at the edges. Someone else was here. She pressed a hand
against the door.
The same room, the same layout, just reversed; the bed was not on the left wall but on the
right. The windows still made up the opposite wall. The room was thick with the smell of coffee
grounds and tobacco, and there was a thin haze in the air that made her eyes water. Lounging on
the carpet, back against the window, legs sprawled, reclined a man. He seemed unbothered by her
appearance in his room and was methodically bouncing the back of his head against the glass. His cherubic head of messy curls looked at odds with his days-old stubble, and he was dressed in a woven blanket hoodie and shorts, like the travellers Vera had seen around Europe in the summer before university. He reminded her of a very tall scarecrow. Perhaps in his early thirties. Vera’s heartrate peaked. She was grateful to finally see another person, yet afraid to be alone with him. He stopped thudding his scalp on the glass and slowly looked in her direction.
So, how long have you been here? He addressed the air behind her. His voice was
gravelly and tinged with an Eastern-European accent, probably Russian. His eyes rolled to finally
fix Vera with a half-lidded gaze.
She hesitated. I can’t remember. You?
He barked a laugh. Not long.
Vera exhaled. She strode over to his reclined form and held out a hand. Vera.
He smiled widely, pensively, returning the hand with one which was streaked with dirt
and dotted with round, shiny burns. Pretty name. Suits you. Rafael. Raf.
She crossed her arms. Have you worked it out yet?
Worked what out? He grinned again, mock-innocent, not leering but not friendly. He
reached a grimy hand into his hoodie pocket, brought out a crumpled cigarette and flicked a
lighter into flame. Yes, I did. Didn’t take me too long. It’s my last one, hope you don’t mind.
Vera looked pointedly at the no-smoking sign above the bed. It was broken into seven
shards from a central point like sunrays; someone had thrown a heavy object, or a fist, at the
plastic. She glanced back down at Raf’s hands: not dirt, but brown scabbed streaks of congealed
blood. Her eyes flickered to the side of the bed: the plastic phone hung off the useless rotary on
its spiral cord, a dent distorting the receiver. One for good measure.
She sat down a safe distance from him on the floor, leant back. I need you to do me a
Nothing else to do. Her vision blurred with Raf’s grey tendrils of regurgitated smoke. He
puffed luxuriantly on the cigarette, saturating the room. Vera could feel a film of tobacco coating
her tongue, her skin. She imagined her skin greying, rotting like a fruit peel.
It has to be the bath. You’ve probably worked that out already but there’s no other
choice, unless you do it with the phone cord. She snorted. Which seems a little brutal.
What about the sheets?
They rip. She rolled her eyes. Too thin.
They sat in silence for a while. Vera heard a familiar dripping from the en suite.
Your tap leaks too.
Raf stared at the profile of her face. He broke into a humourless half-smirk. What
happened to you then?
Vera stared unseeingly ahead. What had happened? She remembered a white ceiling and
blue curtains and her mum crying through clumped eyelashes. Her dad was stood further back,
greying, pale, his jaw tight. The moment shimmered at the edge of her consciousness, taunting.
The backs of her eyes felt hot. She wondered what the service would be like at church. The empty words; she was ‘loved by all,’ a ‘ray of sunshine.’ Phrases that could not possibly encompass something as sprawling as a life. She thought of all the places she had wanted to go. People were always telling her to make the most of life, but no one ever told you where, or when, or with who, to begin.
Raf was still thoughtfully dragging smoke down into his lungs, oblivious. You know, if
you cut the head off a chicken it runs around for a few seconds after. Like its body doesn’t catch
up with the fact that its head is gone for whole seconds. Isn’t that mental? He grinned crookedly.
I’ve seen it.
You’ve cut the head off a chicken?
We used to keep them in the garden. When I was younger.
They sat for a moment in respectful silence, the ghosts of headless chickens running
A thought materialised for Vera. Do you think this is where they are for a few seconds,
right before they’re gone?
Raf laughed a yes. I bet their whole stupid chicken lives flash before their eyes in the
chicken limbo and then their bodies catch up with their heads and suddenly, that’s it. Gone. He
snapped his fingers. Vera cringed. She saw Raf with an axe hacking the scrawny pockmarked
neck of a chicken, heard the crunch of sinew and delicate bone.
He had finished his cigarette with a final sucking draw and stubbed it out on the carpet,
among the other crusty burns in a half circle around him. I could tell you why I’m here, if you
want. As you’ll be leaving. Vera nodded wordlessly, her hair still dripping down her shoulders.
Raf hacked a hollow cough and swallowed, suddenly reserved.
My girlfriend told me I should go to someone. She was right, but I didn’t want to get help.
Too ashamed. Instead, I pretended I was in pain and got prescription opioids, Xanax, Ambien,
anything. When I stopped, real pain would start. They made me feel lighter, euphoric, like who I
was didn’t matter. I would do stupid things on them. Like push her around. Because what I was
doing didn’t even feel real. And then it went too far and next thing she’d hit her head off the wall.
And then I didn’t know what to do so I put her to bed, took a handful of something. I fell asleep,
and now I’m here.
Vera’s stomach lurched. He turned his head to her, sedated jade-coloured eyes daring her
to recoil. She stared back, dazed, inches between their shoulders pressed against the window and
its pearlescent light. She felt the words come up her throat like acid reflux.
You deserve it then.
She paused. I wish I could remember what happened to me.
If you can’t, it’s probably because you don’t need to.
Maybe you’re right.
She stood up in her bath robe and padded to the en suite, leaving Raf on the floor. She
twisted the taps and watched the water run into the tub like liquid glass. Perched on the rim, her
heart pounded with the echoing sound of thundering water. She raised her voice to Raf, who was
still catatonic in the same position.
Maybe doing this could be good for you, she called, attempting to comfort him. If I get
back. Like, divine redemption or something.
He snorted. You think that exists?
Sure. She said, returning. She looked down at him. You’ve always got to have faith.
What’s the point otherwise? You think this is it?
He looked up at her, all dark irises. She noticed his bottom eyelashes were stuck together.
His voice was small now. I’ll have to wait for someone else. Who knows how long that will be?
She smiled, attempting reassurance. You’ll be okay. It gives you time to think. I’ve been
here for what feels like forever.
Vera grabbed his hand and hauled him up. He was surprisingly light. She told him what
to do. She climbed into the bath in the clean white robe, leaving the slippers absurdly waiting on
the bathroom floor, and sunk under with a gurgling exhale. Raf’s hands gripped her, one on each
of her upper arms. She was warm, and fragile, and floating. The dripping of the tap from under
the water sounded like the sharper echo of a heartbeat. From the bathroom on the seventh floor in
the forty-ninth room from the stairwell, Vera counted doors and stories as she felt darkness close
over herself like the surface of water, and then she couldn’t feel his hands anymore.