By Harrison Abbott
I couldn’t stay with my family. I just could not stay in that situation and I wanted out. They were abusive horrible people and I still don’t regret leaving them. A friend of mine named Karisa lived and worked over the sea in Cyprus. I was telling her about the family troubles in a weepy phone call. Karisa said,
“Why don’t you come over here with me and work in the hotel? They hire lots of girls our age. I’m sure you can get a job. And I’ll put in a word for you.”
And this is what ultimately happened. I spent half of what I had on my boat ticket. And I remember that ride, on the Mediterranean, with the astonishing blue and white of the water. Immediately I felt free and that there was almost no home to go back to. I met up with Karisa at the port and we took the bus up to this little resort town on the coast. I was seventeen.
This was in the early spring of that year so it was not so busy in terms of tourists. I instantly fell for the soporific quality of the place. The way the palm leaf shadows played blue shapes on the streets. The rainbow colours on the cement and constant heatwave magic wherever there was a distance. Most of all it was quiet, and somehow forgotten, somewhere anonymous, which are all the attributes a holiday has and needs. And that’s what I needed.
Karisa showed me the basics of the job. It was quite tricky at first. Most of it was manual work, repetitive and dull. I was clumsy around the hotel guests at first. There were three meals a day in the canteen and there were a few awkward scenes in my first six months. I dropped a plate once and the food when flying in cartoonish patterns all across another family who were already eating their dinner. I got a cut in the kitchen another time. One of the chefs was off sick so they asked me to help out with food prep. I slashed my thumb and I still have a mighty scar there today. It bled the whole shift. Another time I got bit by a dog – one of the pet dogs owned by a guest. It came up and snagged my calf, without any provocation, and it was also very gory. The guest was apologetic and I had to get a tetanus shot.
But I liked the work. There was a lingering depressive hangover from my family days. But now I was earning and living with Karisa in a little place near the hotel. On my days off I would stay up and watch films and eat perverse food and watch the sublime sunsets from my balcony. I was in another world. I wasn’t healed, but was circling around an unfamiliar zone of happiness. Maybe I could stay within this zone forever.
It got to the autumn. Karisa told me she was leaving Cyprus. She was going to university back in Greece. I was sad to see her leave. (I met up with her only two times more in my life and as I’m narrating this it’s four decades later. She’s not even alive anymore. Karisa died of cancer last year. We just didn’t keep in touch that much. It’s the way things happen and that’s what friends do.) And I was on my own. It’s hard to adapt to loneliness and you rarely see it coming. I took up more hours at the hotel because I wanted to be around people more. And my manager was impressed with my efforts and I got a promotion.
That’s what hotels are defined by: people. I enjoyed watching people. Not in a creepy way; I just found them interesting. There were the young couples in their early twenties, physically beautiful or ugly: I’d watch their bodies and how they interacted with each other. Some of the most pretty couples barely spoke to each other. Some of the ugly couples had brilliant arguments which they performed at the pool-side when everybody else present had gone silent. I’m not judging people for being ugly. I myself am ugly. And at that point I was a virgin and had never had a boyfriend.
One time there was a fist fight between two men. One of them was from England and the other from Scotland. I knew because I’d heard their accents before in films and the news and so on. This also happened on the pool side. There’d been a small verbal altercation between them the day before in the canteen. I think one of them was wearing a football strip and the other one said something to annoy him about it. Silly stuff, meant as a joke. But then the other chap took offence and they began glaring at each other. And the next day they stared at each other across the pool. Both had been drinking for hours. They passed each other by the pool. I heard a thwack sound and I looked up. Then this violence erupted. They fell into the water and all the kids around the area started screaming. I shrieked as well and I ran into the canteen to get the male chefs to help out. They pulled one of the men out of the water. Both of these men had brought their families with them on holiday and had children themselves. It’s amazing how men can get so irate about nothing.
These moments were like movie scenes. And what made it evermore fictional was that constant inky dreamy light with surrounded anything. It rarely rained save at night and those were usually accompanied by thunderstorms. Even though I was alone it made me feel like somebody else …
I did miss Karisa though. I took to drinking with the chefs after we’d all finished the shift. They were nice men. A bit stupid. One of them asked me out on a date during one boozy session and I politely said I already had a boyfriend. I felt bad about that but I just wasn’t attracted to him. That night I dreamt that I had gone on the date with him and he’d made love to me. And when I woke up I was wet. It got me thinking. I was nearly nineteen now and I had some kind of security as to finance and a roof. But what was my purpose? Was I talented at anything? Now that I had the fundamental things sorted shouldn’t I persevere and try to do something meaningful … I couldn’t yet figure out what that should be.
The next summer came. Summers are always mad in hotels.
It sounds like I’ve been wholly negative about the guests so far. A lot of them were glorious people. Most people are kind and were friendly to us as workers. When I hung out in the bar a lot of the tourists would speak to us and buy us drinks and make short-term friendships with us. That’s the good side of humanity and it does happen.
Then one night I walked into the bar alone. I looked around for the colleagues and none of them were there for some reason. But I did notice this one man sitting at the bar. He looked different. He was in his forties, I guessed, and very handsome. By him was a notebook in which he scribbled with a pencil. I sat two seats next to him and he turned to me. He smiled.
“Hi there, ma’am.”
“Hello there,” I blushed at his smile and tried to hide my face. He noticed the blush. So he turned away from me and said,
“What’ll you have to drink? I’d like to buy you a drink.”
Martini I said. He got two martinis for us.
“What’s your name, my lady?” as he chinked my glass.
“Nice to meet you Delphine, I’m Karl.” His fingers were long and strong. “Do you like poetry?”
“I do like poetry. Only I don’t know that much about it.”
“That’s what I was doing when you came in.”
He showed me his notebook. There were little words in neat skilful lines. I could see it was in English but couldn’t make out the content.
“I don’t know if I’m any good at it,” he said, “but it’s my passion.”
“That’s cool. Do you have any books?”
“I have one book. Only one, alas. I can show you it if you like?”
“You have any hobbies yourself?”
“I wish I did … Well, I like films. Maybe I could make a film one day, though I don’t know I’d be able to.”
“Of course you could, Delphine. Of course. Another drink.”
I’d never spoken to a man that looked like this before. He wasn’t exactly in shape, bodily wise, and I judged that he must be twenty years my senior, but his face was magnificent with a big jaw and thin pearly eyes. Long lashes too and his veins bulged on his arms. I asked him what he was doing in Cyprus.
“I just fancied a little holiday. I got into some trouble back home; nothing criminal, I just wanted to leave for a while. You know what I mean – when you must escape something for a period?”
“I know exactly what you mean.”
“Sure, so I wanted to come and try some poetry in a different climate. I love the place already. I love the air and the different birds and the little scarpering lizards and the oranges that grow wild by the roads. And the cats too. There’s already a cat that mooches on my balcony. He’s quite a character. He has this terrific miaow.”
“Oh – I think I know the one you mean. Is that the big tabby one?”
“Yes, that’s Mr Miaow. That’s what we call him.”
“Mr Miaow, ho-ho. So you know him as well? You staying here with your friends?”
“No, haha, I work here.”
“Ah, nice, nice,” he finished his glass. “Well, Delphine, I should probably head up to my room and do some poems before I head to bed. But it was real pleasant talking to you.”
Suddenly I got frantic when he stood up from his stool and I blurted out the question,
“Is this your first day here? I haven’t seen you before.”
“Yes my plane arrived in the morning.”
“So you’ll be here tomorrow?”
“I will. Don’t worry. Night night Delphine.”
The next day was actually my day off. I thought about Karl all night. And the next morning I went into the hotel, pretending that I’d forgotten something in the staff room. In order to go through the staff room I had to walk through the canteen and all I wanted was to see Karl. I’d planned that, when I caught his eyes, I would give a little wave and smile. But he was nowhere in the canteen and I left the hotel. That night I went to the bar again but he’d gone. When I was back at work on the Monday I actually checked the guest-list to see what room Karl was staying in. 148. I was afraid he’d left already. But apparently he was still here, and staying until the next Monday. So I had him for a week.
I went up to room 148 that afternoon. It was my job anyway. To do the clean towels for every room. Karl was not in his room. His room was very neat and I felt precious to be there; he had leather shoes in the corner and his notebook was propped on his bedside table alongside a bottle of brandy. I really wanted to take the notebook up and read it. But I didn’t dare to. He might come back any moment. Moving up onto the second floor, most of the other rooms were empty too. It was a brutally hot day and most of the guests were outside and I could hear them through an open window in one of the rooms. Kids squealing and water splashing. This window looked onto the pool. I went over to it and looked out. Maybe Karl would be there.
The window frame was perhaps fifty yards up – high enough to kill me if I jumped. I could see the people around the pool. Kids in the water and adults fondling each other by the deck chairs.
As I was looking around for Karl I saw this little girl. She was only about five or six. She was trying to get her parents’ attention, pointing at a floating mattress on the pool. Saying something like “Mummy, look, Mummy look.” But neither of them looked. She jumped onto the mattress. And of course it buckled under her and she sank in the water. And she stayed there, underwater, and her parents still hadn’t noticed as they were too busy touching each other.
I pulled the window full-out, and I hollered down to them. But none of the people could hear me from that height. I tried to shout louder and my vocal chords snapped and all the while this little girl was drowning.
Then this man jumped into the pool. He appeared from nothing. And he lifted the girl out of the water and placed her onto the poolside and only then did her parents spring up. The girl puked out the water and coughed and spluttered and everybody else on the poolside was watching. The man that saved her was Karl. He came out of the pool as the girl’s father slapped the girl’s back and the mother held her palms to her face. Then the mother wrapped the girl in a towel and rushed her inside the hotel and the father shook Karl’s hand and spoke to him dead in the eyes like men only do when they’re honest.
I made a wish that instant that I would see Karl later that night in the bar. And I did. He was writing poems on the last stool in the corner. When he glanced up I did my practised wave and he pulled out the stool for me. He asked me how I was doing and got me a martini.
“I saw you save that little girl earlier,” I said, “in the pool. I saw the whole thing.”
“Yes, it was a good one.”
“I thought she might have died.”
“She was just a tot. Luckily I saw it and intervened. Her Dad thanked me about ninety times.”
When you speak to somebody you’re intensely attracted to everything about their diction and appearance is heightened in sentience. They way their eyebrows move, which words they pluck out of vocabulary, how they move their hands as they speak. I was mesmerised by Karl. He was Swiss. He talked about books with such elegance that I copied the names and looked them up later. And for the next few nights I’d go into the bar and speak with him. He’d stop writing and speak to me. I hoped that he liked me too. I put on lipstick and played about with different hairstyles and thought up clever things I could say to interest him. Whenever we spoke it was usually him that monologued and I would ask questions: I was so much younger and less bright, it seemed.
On the Thursday night he was talking about his poetry. I asked him what he’d been writing today and he said he could read it to me, if I wanted? He fumbled about in his pockets and remembered that he’d left his notebook upstairs.
“Come upstairs and I can show you it, Delphine. Only if you want to?”
“I do want to.”
I followed him into his room and he closed the door. He handed me a glass of brandy and then he read his poem out to me. I do not remember it verbatim. There were stars and telephone calls, the smell of paper, the wonders of faraway ships and the confused fiction of windy shutters and waking up wondering whether to be afraid or secure.
When he finished reading it I clapped. Then he kissed me.
After I learned his lips he lifted me over to the bed and I relished every contour of my skin as he took my clothes off. I’d never felt proud of my body before. He nuzzled my breasts and I felt myself going juicy downstairs and then he slipped into me and I shuddered with joy. I touched his biceps and marvelled at his face above me and that this was all happening and I came for the first time in my life. I’d never watched pornography or anything and was unsure how sex was supposed to work. From what I got from intuition, he hadn’t came yet. He stood by the bed and his penis was still erect. He placed my hand on it and emphasised for me to rub it. And I did so and we got there.
Karl poured me another brandy. I went into the bathroom and washed myself up a bit and he said I could take a shower if I wanted to. I did and when I went back he was snoozing on his bed.
“Do you have work tomorrow?” he said.
“I have another day off tomorrow; I have two days off a week.”
“Why don’t we do something tomorrow? A walk on the beach?”
“I’d love to.”
I held him like a pillow. Held him hard.
Still stunned from the sex, I couldn’t rest. He fell asleep and I listened to his breathing. I watched his lungs rise and fall and I looked over at the clock on the tableside and it had gone past midnight without me noticing. That meant it was Friday. And Karl was leaving on Monday. A great panic blew up in me and I wanted to wake him up and promise me that he would stay with me beyond then … I didn’t want him to leave. Everything was perfect.
I woke up to this,
“Miaow miaow …” and looked over to an open balcony and a massive tabby cat was walking into the room. Karl was standing above him grinning.
“There he is, Mr Miaow.”
We played with the cat. Of course he was only interested in food and lost interest in our games. Sunlight amazed the room. Karl invited me onto the balcony for a cigar. I tried to smoke one. He saw that I didn’t like it and said it was okay if I wanted to put it out.
“Why don’t we go into town for breakfast?” he said.
I said yes. We went to this little bar near the port and sat outside and at as we looked over the sea. The gulls squawked and dove and squabbled in the sky. When Karl was into his second drink he talked. He studied in Germany and used to live in France and could speak both languages. His favourite German writer was Rilke and he proclaimed one of Rilke’s poems and I adored the harsh clashing tone of it. Karl paid for the meal and then we went for a walk on the beach. He had a flask in his back pocket which I hadn’t noticed before and he drank from it as we walked and I didn’t say anything.
“Do you want to swim in the sea?” he said.
“I do … But I don’t have my swimsuit on me.”
“Oh, come, why don’t we just do it in our underwear? We can find a quiet spot on the beach.”
We went past this cliff face and took our clothes off. Karl went into the water first and pulled me along and we swam out into this mini lagoon. It was Eden. We climbed up the rocks of the cliff and dove off them. I could feel the famous history of this sea and I felt that, in this little patch with just the both of us, we were contributing a story to its legacy. But I wanted it only for Karl and I.
We swam back to the shore and dried up. (It was thirty degrees and the underwear wouldn’t be wet for long.) Walking back to the hotel, Karl quietened. I tried to talk myself, about some books I read as a kid. He nodded and didn’t seem interested. When we got to the hotel he said,
“I had a lovely day with you, Delphine.”
“Me too it was fun.”
“I’m a bit tired after the swim. I might go up and rest. That okay? And I can see you tomorrow?”
“Please can I see you tomorrow?”
“I’ll be here. Do you have a shift?”
“There we go.”
He kissed me on the cheek and I savoured the saliva that dallied there as he walked off.
The next day at work I did not see Karl once. He wasn’t in the canteen for breakfast lunch or dinner. I went up to room 148 several times to see if he was there. No sign whatsoever. I checked the guest book, in a terror, to see if he’d checked out. He hadn’t but I still couldn’t sleep that night and of course Saturday turned into Sunday and I knew he was leaving the next day.
I was working the thirteen-hour Sunday shift. I saw Karl in the canteen during breakfast. I went up to him and hugged him and my colleagues all looked over. He was mildly embarrassed and dealt a brief hug back.
“Hi there, Delphine.”
“I was worried about you, Karl.”
“Why? What happened?”
“I didn’t see you yesterday.”
“Oh – ho. I took a ride out of town down the coast, that was all.”
“You did? Did you get much poetry done?”
“A little … nothing that good.”
He was irritated and his eyelids were puffy and he reeked of alcohol.
“Okay, well,” I said, “enjoy your breakfast. I’ll see you tonight in the bar?”
Glad that Karl was still alive, I went upstairs to do the towels. My shift ended at six o’clock. At home I worked in the mirror for hours and put on my favourite dress and shoes. As I was preparing I kept debating the fact that Karl was leaving Cyprus the next day. I could persuade him to stay? I fantasised that he might ask me to fly back with him to Switzerland. As long as he just wasn’t leaving tomorrow then that’s all I wanted, and I went up to the hotel and into the bar.
Karl was there on the last stool, again, drinking. He was scrolling on his notebook with his forehead dipped down.
“Hi there, Karl.”
He jumped when I spoke.
“Sorry I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“Oh, it’s Delphine.”
“Are you okay?”
“Can I sit?”
He nodded. I thought he would buy me a drink but he didn’t offer so I got him one instead. I tried to speak to him; he kept scribbling at his pages angrily.
“I didn’t mean to interrupt your poetry,” I said, “just wanted to greet you.”
Karl sighed and his fingers eased.
“I’m sorry, Delphine, I just get a bit cranky when I can’t get a good page out.”
“It’s no worries.”
We drank together unto the evening. He bought the drinks for us and got us some snacks. But he just wasn’t talking. He was depressed and angry and only gave curt answers. I was sinking down in the end of our film. I was drowning, just like that girl that this man had saved. The only hope I had in sinking was that he would pull me up.
And then he asked me up to his room.
We got into the room. He flopped his dairy onto the table and the end of his bed and then sat in his chair. I was scared of him but I still wanted to help. I sat at the end of his bed.
“Why are you so sad today, Karl?”
“I just get sad sometimes, and I can’t get away from it.”
“I feel like that all the time. But you can tell me about it, if you want?”
“Even if it’s something silly, I’m willing to listen.”
He got up from his desk and lay down on the bed. I touched his calf.
“Karl, it’s all right if you have days off. If you can’t create something brilliant. It doesn’t mean you’re not a good artist.”
His face curled.
“What’s that?” he said, and he sat up. “What did you say, Delphine?”
“I thought you might be worried about your poetry … Are you?”
“Why would you think that?”
He stood up from the bed and came towards me. And I stood up and away from him. Then he followed my body towards the far wall by the TV, where I stopped. He stood above me. I cowered from him.
“I’m afraid of you, Karl. Why are you being like this?”
Karl punched me in the face. I flattened.
“You leave,” he said.
His fist wasn’t painful so much as surprising and simply put me on the floor. I was dazed and stayed on the floor. Karl powered above me.
“I told you to leave,” he said and he ran to me and aimed a kick at my head. I ducked. His leg swivelled around and with the miss of impact he fell over. I got up and ran over to the door. Went through it and slapped it shut. I ran down the hotel corridor and out into the courtyard. There was a merry moon in the sky. I got home. All the while my chin was throbbing.
I took some painkillers.
The time was 02:13, Monday.
Karl would be vanishing in a few hours. I wanted to see him again. So I rushed back to the hotel. I was drunk and ditsy with the head wound. Brain shaking about. I went up to 148 and knocked on the door. Then I went inside using my staff key. And what I wanted was for his body to be there sleeping on the bed. I could still smell him but his suitcase and diary were gone. In the en-suite sink I found Karl’s facial hair – black specks from his jaw. I picked up some of the specks in a tissue, folded the tissue in half and left the room and ran down stairs to the main lobby. I checked the guest book. Karl had checked out. And the movie ended.
To this day I still work in Cyprus. I work at the same hotel. The only man I’ve ever slept with is Karl and I still think about him in a repetitive madness. I masturbate over that time we made love almost every day. It’s bleak and perverse and backward, but I wake up with a daily hangover and in that grimy passage I feel I can still be with him and feel he’s still there. And I tried to find Karl after he left. I looked all over Switzerland for him. On the internet and social media.
I know that he will never come back. And I wish that I never met him in Cyprus. Wish that I was still a virgin.
What I’m left with is this holiday resort which belongs to nothing. I was naïve in thinking that attaching this place to a person would be the answer for me. But I am too weak to cleanse myself of Karl. Is that what it means to be human: to glue to another mind and pretend as if it’s your own? That there’s a proper seal and conclusion to that mentality?
I admire the palm leaves and their swishy sound. The yellow smack of the beach-shots. The Mise-en-scène of the hotel rooms and all the peculiar characters therein. I could tell you hundreds of other stories about violence and sex and crime … I suppose that’s why I stayed in the job. And now I’m old and there isn’t a shift where I go by room 148 where I don’t think about Karl. And whenever I go into the bar I will look up at that last stool on the corner and anticipate his beauty. Most often there’s nobody sitting there. There are usually young folks in their twenties. I envy them. I wasted my youth. It’s hard not to be cynical. But I’m not mean enough to be mean so all I do is serve them politely and stay in this castle of memory.
And there are still the cats in the hotel. Tons of them. They flipper about the area, teasing the guests for food, toying, teasing. Whenever I see a tabby cat I think of Mr Miaow. He had the best “Miaow” and no cat could match him. I never knew what became of Mr Miaow. He stayed around for a few years after Karl left and then disappeared. Maybe he got crushed by a car or something.
Obviously there is no chance that Mr Miaow could still be alive now because cats do not live that long. But I hope that he just found some other hotel where the guests were a bit nicer. Whatever. I hope he died old and peaceful.
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