Just Five Minutes

Author: Anja Jardine
Translator: Rebecca Heier

She knows right away the hand is dead. She isn’t scared, just the opposite – she feels a flicker of annoyance, though it quickly gives way to the peculiar thrill that accompanies such a sensational discovery. Instinctively, she goes to the window and opens it wide, as if fresh air were an automatic reaction to death. As she picks up the phone to call the front desk, her glance sweeps his face. Listening to the phone ring and waiting for someone down there to answer, she studies him: not yet fifty; thick, dark hair lying tousled on the pillow; blue t-shirt. Suddenly she hangs up. She pulls the footstool up close to the head of the bed and sits down, as if she were visiting a sick person or going to read a bedtime story to a child. Propping her elbows on her knees, she looks at him. Just five minutes, she thinks.

Normally, she has nothing to do with the people. Whenever she’s with her housekeeping cart next to hotel guests in the elevator or maneuvering the bulky thing through the halls, she nearly always looks down, focusing on the vinegar-water cleaner –wouldn’t do to have it slosh out. She always wonders whether people can smell it. Whether they think she smells like that, too. You can’t get rid of it, she’s tried everything. Maybe it’s just her imagination and the smell has simply settled in her nose. Sour, acrid, a little like hospital. Sometimes somebody will say “Guten Morgen“. She just nods, though, if even that. She used to look up and return the greeting, loud and clear. But she quickly noticed it wasn’t her they were talking to.

She looks around the room; he laid his clothes on a chair –jeans, shirt, sweater. There’s a short, gray coat hanging on the hook near the door, a pair of brown boots standing next to a leather bag. That’s it. She hears the sound of a door shutting somewhere and sits up and listens, but everything’s quiet. Her cart’s in the hall, she’s turned the night lock out so the door can’t fall shut. Ever since that incident with 219 a couple of months ago, she sometimes gets a little edgy whenever she’s alone in a room and suddenly doesn’t hear anything anymore.

219 was conspicuous from the very first. It was one of the rooms occupied by the trainees of a company holding a management seminar. He’d transformed the room into an office. He’d shoved the dresser up to the window, taken out the drawers and leaned them up against the wall. The pillows were stacked on the footstool. She sat down and tested it out: it was because of his knees. He’d taken the drawers out so his knees would have room. Everything else he’d put on the floor: the vase with the silk flowers, the tray with the glasses, and the folder with the stationery and the brochures. A laptop and charger had taken their place. With the exception of the ceiling light fixture, not a single lamp had been left in place. She left everything just the way he’d put it. The bathroom looked like an old-time pharmacy – a bunch of bottles and little jars, all with handwritten labels on them. Right from the start he gave her the creeps.

Actually, she likes being alone on the floor. Sometimes, to pass the time, she fantasizes about being on some kind of TV quiz show: first she’d be shown pictures of twenty people followed by pictures of twenty rooms, and then she’d have to match the rooms to the people. She’d be able to do it without batting an eye, she’s sure. She’s got an exact picture of them all. Nobody pulls the wool over her eyes.

The man in 211, for instance. A regular. She always recognizes him by his pajamas, which remind her of school and youth hostels and overnight field trips. They’re usually made of terrycloth, either blue or green, and lie neatly folded into a letter-paper sized square on the pillow. Whenever she enters the room, she finds the bedspread turned back, the window opened, and the toothpaste tube screwed shut. Signs of respect that she appreciates. He puts his clothes in the closet. Never would he leave her an orange peel lying on the nightstand. Hardly ever does he help himself to anything from the minibar. If there is something gone, then maybe the peanuts. He’s a polite man, polite and odorless. It takes her no more than ten minutes, max, to do his room. Mostly not even that long.

One day she saw him in the lobby and knew in a flash: that’s 211. A gentleman in beige corduroy pants, friendly eyes behind small round glasses. And she was right – weeks later, when he was in the hotel again, she had to go up to the second floor to deliver a platter of fruit to a check-in and happened to see him fumbling with the lock on his door.

Or the guy in 213 at the moment. The kind who’s old enough to carry hair growth tonic and Viagra in his luggage but hasn’t yet figured out what a toilet brush was invented for. His wedding ring’s being stored in the toothbrush tumbler. A crying shame, but it does happen. Actually, she doesn’t care if there are two people in a single room, but nobody should think they can keep it a secret from her. The bed is messed up in an entirely different way. Especially the pillows. One person alone either throws one of the pillows off the bed, or puts one on top of the other, or just touches one. But they don’t put them side by side and roll their head from one to the other.

213 has been in the room for two nights. He has something to do with solar energy. Salesman, probably. In any case he’s got two open boxes in the room – one contains solar pocket calculators and the other ballpoint pens with “SOLAR” written on them. They look like advertising freebies.

Yesterday morning there was a big “Dankeschön” written on the mirror – in fingernail polish, the “ö” shaped like a heart. Unbelievable. She had to make a special trip up to the storage room to get cleaning solvent, after she’d ruined her nails trying to get that message off. She’d be able to identify 213 blind and ten miles upwind, that’s how overpowering his aftershave is.

With check-outs, of course, there isn’t as much evidence, even if there are great differences in the way people leave the rooms behind. For some, she’s not even a person; they seem to think there’s a cleaning machine that comes along, like a street sweeper or something. If they think anything at all. She wonders what kind of mothers they had. Other folks leave a few coins – mostly foreigners, probably wanting to get rid of their change.

Once she had a very strange check-out. A drama in real life. There was a complete set of clothes in the wastebasket: jeans, sweatshirt, sport shoes, and even a pair of panties. The clothes had been worn, but they weren’t old. She had them washed and kept in the lost-and-found for a while. The bed was practically untouched. Someone had been lying on it, but hadn’t slipped under the covers. Above all, the room reeked of cigarette smoke, even though it was a non-smoking room, and there was an empty Champagne bottle bobbing in the ice bucket. In the armchair were two elegant-looking paper bags and the packaging from a pair of silk stockings, and as she was folding up the bags a couple of receipts fell out. One of them had a high price written on it, and on the other she saw something with sequins. Then she discovered the sheets of stationery lying all crumpled-up on the floor, and this time she couldn’t resist smoothing them out. On the one stood simply “Dearest Gerhard” and on the second she could barely make out “Dearest, it’s 2:37 a.m. and you” – the rest was illegible. Oh, no! she thought, the poor woman. She felt sorry for her; she knows what it’s like to be stood up. For the rest of the day she couldn’t stop thinking about her. Where had she wanted to go dressed up in her expensive sequined thingy in the middle of January? Why hadn’t she taken her clothes with her? It was a mystery. And why hadn’t this Gerhard shown up?

She notices one knee sticking out from under the bedcovers. The dead man’s lying on his side with one leg bent. She resists the urge to cover him up. He looks like he’s sleeping, and yet not. She gazes at the brown forearm on the white sheet, the fine, golden hairs glistening in the sunlight, the pale-pink nails of his strong hand. He looks so healthy. They’re still growing, it occurs to her. She read that somewhere. For how long? Funny, she thinks. Your heart’s not beating anymore, your brain’s not thinking, and your nails are still growing. He looks like a nice guy. Not one of the typical suits they usually host.

They’re a meeting and convention hotel on the outskirts of Hamburg. Three stars. When they’re booked full it’s backbreaking work. Then she sometimes imagines Housekeeping as an Olympic sport to get herself up to speed. That’s even kind of fun. Ideally, all the rooms on her floor are check-outs with everyone already gone. Then she can turn up the radio full blast and cut loose: open the windows, strip the beds, take out the trash and dishes, replace the towels, clean the bathroom – toilet, sink, shower, mirror, in that order, then wipe down the glass shower partition and polish the fittings, mop the floor – put clean sheets on the beds, vacuum, dust, check the minibar and the information packet, re-stock the shampoo and soap, and finally take a critical look at the general impression – adjust the drapes and so forth. Her record for a normal check-out in a single room is 5 minutes, 26 seconds. After three rooms she’s dripping wet. That morning of the incident in 219, too, she was in full swing.

She was on her knees in front of the toilet. The bathroom in 219 is so cramped that you can’t use the floor mop; you have to get down on your hands and knees to wipe up every last hair in every nook and cranny. While she was doing that, her foot bumped against something that was too soft to be the door frame. She turned her head and saw him. 219. She had no idea how long he’d been there. Arms folded across his chest, he was smiling down at her, a smug, tight-lipped smile. She jumped up as quickly as she could from that awkward position, snatched up her scrub pail, and said she’d come back later. He blocked her way.

There she stood, pail in one hand and sponge-cloth in the other, a few strands of hair straggling across her sweaty face, and he grabbed her breasts. He put each of his hands on a breast and squeezed so hard it hurt. The smile on his face unchanged, the eyes without lashes, the chapped, flaking skin. She couldn’t help registering all that. “That’s the way you like it, isn’t it?” he breathed, and a twitch at the corner of his mouth betrayed his arousal. He had just forced his knee between her thighs when they heard voices in the hall, and it was due more to plain accident than quick thinking that at just that moment she dropped her pail. He leapt back, swearing, and she was already out the door. There probably wouldn’t have been any repercussions – she was in a sort of shock for the rest of the day – if he hadn’t complained about his leather shoes. Hand-sewn, from England. The maid hadn’t noticed him, he said, when he returned to his room, and in her clumsiness had spilled her dirty scrub-water all over him. Only then did she fly into a rage, and it all came out.

The seminar leader asked her not to press charges, assuring her the young man would have no future in the company. The next morning 219 was gone. The seminar leader sent her flowers and an envelope with a 100-euro bill in it. The boss, Frau Steinhäuser, called her into her office again and informed her that she’d no doubt overreacted and would she please refrain from such dramatics in the future. There was some discussion, though, about going back to cleaning the rooms in pairs, but Frau Steinhäuser decided it just didn’t make financial sense.

She and Antje used to be a team. But Antje was useless as a maid. Too fat. In no time at all she’d be out of breath. She usually wound up sitting on the beds, eating the gummy bears they were supposed to leave on the guests’ pillows as part of the turn-down service.

Now Antje works in the kitchen. There she’s in her element. This morning she was getting a tray of cold cuts ready for the breakfast buffet when she arrived at the hotel. “What do you want first?” Antje asked. “The good news or the bad?”

“Bad news first,” she answered, and already knowing what was coming, added, “Kale Feast of the Young Christian Democrats or the General Convention of Retired Railway Workers?”

“Not bad,” called Antje, “it was the young assholes.”

“I’ll get it over with,” she said and went straight to the banquet room to clean the toilets.

That’s how the day had started.

The good news was that Antje had squirreled away a croissant for her, which was not without risk, because sometimes Frau Steinhäuser counts them. While they were having a quick cup of coffee, Antje told her that the thief who’d been stealing money from the staff coatroom had finally been caught. Frau Steinhäuser had treated a ten-euro bill with some sort of special fluid, and at lunchtime, the new girl in the kitchen wondered why her fingers were blue. “Frau Steinhäuser just said, ‘Would you please come into my office?’ and that was that.”  Antje always knows everything. You don’t want to get on her bad side. Then she read her horoscope and went up to her floor. By the time she had her cart ready, the first rooms were free. She wanted to make sure to finish on time today because of a date later on – not exactly a frequent occurrence. That’s why she was making such good time. Until she found this guy lying here.

Suddenly she feels ashamed of herself. What’s a date in comparison with the catastrophe that this death means for someone else? Somewhere a life is going to fall apart today. Maybe he has children. And no one knows anything yet. He isn’t wearing a ring, but for sure he belongs to someone. Somebody like that always belongs to someone. She looks at him. He has a nice face. She’d have liked him, too.

On the nightstand is a water glass, and next to that the note with the gummy bears. “Sleep beary well!” is printed on it: “Gute Nacht! Good night! Buona notte! Bonne nuit! Buenas noches!” Instinctively, she opens the envelope. And for one awful fraction of a second the crazy thought flashes through her mind that this could be her man from 221. The one from back then. After all, this is Room 221. But there’s nothing written on this card. The little bag of gummy bears is still there, he just put it off to the side. Really, it’s absurd. Why should it be him, of all people?

For a short time there was someone who wrote to her. She’d been about to throw the card into the garbage bag when she saw the line: “You’re sweet to share, but I don’t care for gummy bears.” For the rest of the day, all the while she was changing bed linens and towels, vacuuming, moving furniture, she racked her brains trying to come up with little rhymes – the cupboard is bare, we have none to spare, we are so verr-y sorry. Stuff like that. They went back and forth for a week, maybe more. First thing every morning she’d hurry to his room to see what he’d written. Their poems kept getting longer and longer. One lunch break she went to the supermarket to buy chocolate or licorice with her own money, only to discover she wasn’t able to rhyme much of anything with “chocolate.” The days flew by like that.

She was sorely tempted to get just one look at him. When one morning his room was empty, she could have cried. He’d left a box of candy with a note for the “poet maid.” The others kidded her, but she was sad, as if she’d been abandoned. And for weeks afterward, she checked every single good-night card.

The telephone rings, jolting her out of her thoughts. She nearly drops the receiver picking it up. “Guten Morgen, Herr Klein. You tried to reach us?” she hears Bea’s voice saying.

“It’s me,” she says. “Herr Klein is dead. He’s lying here. Can you send up Frau Steinhäuser?”

“My god, dead? What do you mean? Where is he?”

“In bed. Nothing horrible.” She surprises herself at the way she puts it, but she doesn’t want to raise a ruckus, doesn’t want a fuss. Already, though, she can hear Bea shouting to someone, “There’s a dead body in 221!” And now there’ll be a big commotion. Now they’ll all come, and Antje will surely be the first, short of breath or not. She stands up. Time to close the window.

From Anja Jardine, Als der Mond vom Himmel fiel. Copyright © 2008 by Kein & Aber AG Zürich – Berlin
Translation © Rebecca Heier