Four days after Beth died, Kelly started seeing her around the hotel.
The first time she appeared it was just the once, with nothing after it for so long that Kelly put it down to stress. Then, two weeks later, there was another appearance. Closely followed by another. The second time Kelly saw her Beth was in room nine, where she’d been before, sitting on the bed as if newly checked in. The third time, though, she was in the big function room (dead centre, beneath the resin chandelier) and the fourth in the gleaming steel kitchen. After that, she might be anywhere. Kelly would push open the door of a vacated room, lugging the vacuum behind her, and there Beth would be; then the door would bang to, and when she looked back there was nothing.
Beth died in October. It wasn’t dramatic. Some kind of glitch in her heart. People said that they supposed these things happened, but wasn’t it shocking? So young. Only twenty-five. She was the first person Kelly knew, the first her own age, to die. They’d lived a few streets apart, been at school together; they would say hello if they met at the bus stop or the corner shop, but they weren’t really mates. Kelly had cried the day she heard, but not so much for Beth as for all her lost future. All that lost hope. Still, the sadness had been fleeting. It didn’t seem enough of a reason for Beth to start visiting her, as the nights lengthened and the planet turned its face towards the coldest of the stars.
It was the seventh time she saw Beth, on the narrow, steel-lipped service stairs, that Kelly realised her hand was always held the same way. It was the right hand, and it was held against her midriff, atop the small curve of her belly. The palm was inwards, and the fingers were relaxed into a natural bend. It wasn’t pressing or holding, just resting. Her left hand hung down by her side, doing nothing. She looked at Kelly steadily with her dark, grey-blue eyes. Then Kelly moved towards her, and she was gone.
Later, when Kelly went to the toilet, she turned to find the water red again. Amazing how the hit of grief remained as strong every time. She had trained herself to stop inspecting every piece of paper after she wiped, but there was no ignoring this. She flushed, and watched another month disappear into the hotel’s indifferent drains.
Chris came to meet her after work that day. He was waiting for her outside, hunched in his thin black jacket. ‘You didn’t need to,’ she said, taking his elbow.
‘I know,’ he said, unlinking his arm and putting it around her waist instead. ‘I just wanted to make sure you were OK.’
‘It’s not like it hasn’t happened before,’ she said, and they laughed, because there was nothing else to do.
‘How’s Cath?’ he said, and Kelly thought of her boss the way she had seen her last: sitting in the hotel manager’s office, the computer screen white in front of her, her forehead resting in her hand.
‘Same as ever,’ she said. ‘I’ve still got a job, at least.’
‘Andy says I can have an extra shift,’ Chris said. ‘It’s a bit of extra money.’
‘That’s good,’ she said.
‘You’ve still got to work here though, haven’t you?’ His voice was tired of hope, and she understood him. Hope died in increments, became more a routine than a feeling. The two of them were faithless churchgoers, turning out for every service, following the commandments, while inside them the belief faded away. The only thing left was the certainty, the certainty that they had to keep trying.
‘It’s the statutory,’ she said. ‘We need the statutory pay. Even with your extra shift.’
The words were like dry stones, dropped between her teeth. She tried not to listen to them, or to feel the insistent ache in her lower back. More and more when she spoke about the future, the words sounded like unlikely lines, spoken by an actor with her voice, and she would hear them and think: Oh shut up.
Every day that she came to work and Cath didn’t announce she was closing the place, she counted as a bonus. Sometimes there were guests: mainly Americans, mainly in summer. They fell for the window boxes and the fact that the bricks were older than their country. You had to be British to look at the place and see it for what it was: a tatty London tourist hotel, trading on dishonest gentility. The Americans often checked out as soon as they checked in, repulsed by the brown bathroom suites and rattling windows.
‘Brainstorm,’ Cath would say, standing in the door of her office with two cups of tea in her hands, and Kelly would join her at the invoice-strewn desk to talk room rates and wedding trade, though it was hopeless. The hotel needed bookings to fund its refurbishment, but without the refurbishment no-one wanted to book. Even in the worst months Cath never kept her after shift for their meetings, though Kelly would have understood. ‘It’s five,’ she’d say, tapping Kelly’s arm meaningfully. ‘You go and enjoy your evening.’
As the guest numbers declined, into winter, the corridors were dim by three in the afternoon, and the air grew still and took on the faint whiff of damp plaster. Alone on the upper floors, Kelly dusted rooms vacated since August. For a place with no people in it, the hotel generated a lot of dust. It appeared on any flat surface, even in locked rooms, a stealthy coating of odd, reddish-brown powder. It was as if the building itself was shedding, breaking itself down with slow patience into its component parts. Contained within the stale silence of the walls, Kelly took to singing as she moved from room to room, one small spark of warm life in a chilly, half-lit warren.
In November, Cath announced that she was shutting the whole top floor of the hotel. ‘I’m sorry, love,’ she said, holding Kelly’s hand as if announcing a bereavement. ‘I just can’t afford to run the whole thing, the light, the heat, the housekeeping. I can keep you on three days a week but that’s it. I’m sorry.’
Kelly calculated: still enough to qualify for benefits. Still enough to live on after the baby. The word like a bead on a rosary, passed through her fingers again and again with the same ritual chant: the baby, the baby, the baby, the baby. Blessed art thou among women. Blessed is the fruit of thy womb.
‘It’s all right,’ she said, feeling Cath’s small, cold hand round hers. ‘I’ll manage. But what about you?’
‘It’s so difficult,’ Cath said, and Kelly could hear the tears rising up her throat, pushing into her eyes. ‘Not knowing what the future holds. Hanging on every day. I want it to work so much. But it just doesn’t.’
‘I know,’ Kelly said, and hugged her. After a moment Cath sniffed and pulled away, turning her face down in shame and searching in her bag for a tissue. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I just don’t know what I’m doing wrong.’
‘Nothing,’ said Kelly, the words heard so often before. ‘You tried so hard. Come on. How about Christmas? There’s always Christmas parties.’
At the start of December they put up desultory tinsel garlands and signs about Christmas hire, and Kelly persuaded Cath to let her clean the function room for free. Polishing the plastic crystals of the chandelier, high on a ladder above the neglected parquet dancefloor, she looked down into the upturned full-moon face of a dead girl.
There were no Christmas function bookings. People wanted a proper bar and music system, not faux-Victorian fittings and faded wallpaper. Cath closed the doors of the function room and told Kelly not to bother dusting it any more. The hotel grew another dead space, a zone unspoken of, where brown dust settled to its satisfaction.
The silence crept in at home, too. She and Chris sat together in the evenings and watched TV, then went to bed and did whatever the calendar said they should, but the words got fewer and further between. It wasn’t distance, but weariness. The same thing, over and over. She felt it in him when he turned to her in bed and said, unprompted, ‘You do know I love you?’
‘Of course,’ she said, curling her hand over the top of his head, stroking the close fuzz of his hair.
They tried in mid-December, and in the supermarket she found she was unable to pick up the tests from the shelf. So many times she’d wasted three, four; a stupid amount of money. As her hand brushed the plastic wrapper she found it wasn’t the idea of the minus sign that repulsed her, but the thought of the months on months each minus sign opened up ahead of her. A winter’s night, an infinity of stasis. But what other option was there? She forced her fingers around the blue-and-pink box and dropped it into her shopping basket.
The loneliness led her to speak to Beth. She couldn’t bring herself to ask questions – the idea of those grave lips opening in answer was too horrifying – so instead she rambled. In the still half-light of the hotel she talked to the empty air, detailing the plots of television thrillers and the problems with the boiler, Chris’s brother’s attempts to pass the driving test, his mum’s smoking. When there was nothing left to say she sang songs she liked from the radio. She was not sure, any longer, whether she was talking to Beth or warding her off.
At the end of December, just before Christmas, Kelly came in and knew that something was different. Cath on the phone in the hall, walking away when she saw Kelly, shielding the receiver with her hand. Pretending not to be crying. In her office, papers laid out in ominous rows.
Kelly didn’t bother putting on her uniform. She pushed through the swing door into the toilets instead. In the ladies’, Beth was waiting for her.
‘Do you remember,’ Kelly said, ‘when we were six? We used to sit under the bushes on the playing field. That little den the boys made. And we talked about what we wanted to be when we grew up, and you said all you wanted was to be a mum.’ She pushed her hand into her bag and dug below her purse and hat, pulling out one of the long foil packets that always nestled at the bottom. When she looked up Beth was still there, her gaze unblinking, the grey-blue of her irises the colour of a deep cold sky.
Kelly dropped her eyes and tore the end of the packet. ‘Do you know what day it is today?’ She went into one of the cubicles, sliding the little plastic wand from its packaging. ‘It’s midwinter. December the twenty-first. On the radio they called it the turning point of the year.’
Though Beth’s figure had gone, dispelled by Kelly’s movement, Kelly had grown to feel that she was always somehow present. Recently, she had stopped disappearing when Kelly moved her head. Sometimes Kelly could take a step or two towards her and Beth would persist, sliding from view only when she was within touching distance. Kelly felt like she was beginning to accept Beth, to find her ordinary, and when she realised this, she realised that there were no more options left. There would be a future, one way or another, and the only way there could be a future was if, one way or another, there was an end.
‘Last time,’ she said, to Beth’s invisible presence. ‘Last time for us.’ She took the cap off the test and used it as she had done a thousand times before. Then, sitting in limbo, watching the tide rise over the little square window, she waited to see the future.
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