Her nails were done, buffed, with clear polish. When she talked she sounded like a needle dragged back over a record — as if she swallowed her own words….”
by misha cahill
When she came in, I couldn’t move. She had brown hair, parted to the side. Other than that, looking at her was like looking in an awful mirror. She had the same puffy chin, the same dimple, the same bulging eyes as I did. Not similar; exactly the same.
I handed her the reception desk form to collect her name, credit number, and a contact number. My hands shook. This woman didn’t just look a bit like me. She was me, standing in front of the hotel desk. I’d stayed up until four the previous night, and minutes earlier, I’d been sick in the bathroom. The late afternoon was calm, but the hotel usually got several guests then, so I had been trying to wake myself up by pinching my cheeks and pulling the skin out. Dust off the stairway carpet drifted slowly down through the patch of light thrown down by the high window. But now I was wide awake.
She was a posh lady. Her name, Poppy Moraigne, sounded like something from Tatler magazine. Her nails were done, buffed, with clear polish. When she talked she sounded like a needle dragged back over a record — as if she swallowed her own words. It made me aware that I’d probably say ‘fing’ instead of ‘thing’. It was uncomfortable seeing those buffed nails and hearing those posh words from a copy of myself.
‘Do you notice anyfing?’ I said, when she’d filled in the form. ‘Like, about us?’
‘Not really.’ She didn’t look at me. Her eyes darted around, her head twitched, and she flicked her hair back. She was aggravated. ‘My room.’
‘Just one moment.’ I typed her details into the computer.
‘I don’t have time. Key, please.’
I handed over the key. I figured Ms. Moraigne must be real tired. She walked up the stairs, wiggling, because she wore a pencil skirt and sling-back high heels. Her body was exactly like mine — even her plump calves. I watched her take each step thinking, ‘If I wore those shoes, I’d be right back down to the bottom.’ Each shoe had a delicate little strap that cut into her ankle.
Bruce came up after a few minutes to take up her suitcases. I knew he would’ve seen her come in. I’d test it on him; I’d find out if he saw the similarity. Before I even asked him anything, his eyes roamed over me. Bruce’s eyes roamed everywhere, and wherever they went they left a trail of sleaze.
‘Did you check out the lady who just came in?’
‘I check out all the ladies, love.’ He said that like it was supposed to be a personal compliment to me. ‘What about her?’
‘Excuse me — did you not notice? She’s my twin.’
‘Twin? I would have noticed if a babe like you came in. And I didn’t see any.’
I dug my fingers into my palms, resisting the urge to recoil from Bruce’s breath. It smelt of dried up smoke, unbrushed teeth, the sweat through the mouth.
‘No, rilly. She had my exact face.’
‘You need your head read, love. Too many late nights.’ Bruce looked at my skirt. ‘Have you heard that track, “Substitute”?’
He launched into a tuneless version of the song and carried away the suitcases. The phone rang as he walked away. It was Ms. Moraigne.
‘The mini-bar has no nuts.’ She didn’t make small talk, or say, ‘Sorry to be a pain.’ Just announced her problem.
‘I’m sorry, you’re right. We don’t keep nuts.’
‘Mini-bars have nuts. So get some sent up.’
She put down the receiver. The dial tone. Okay. It would be me who went to the shops and up the stairs to her room.
Before I shut the desk to go and get her nuts, I checked her credit card. I did that every time, because we’d had backpackers through with stolen cards. The girl on the Visa helpdesk was polite. I could hear her tapping the keyboard at the other end of the phone. The tapping went on for much longer than usual.
‘We don’t have a record of that number,’ she said. ‘Can I recheck it?’
I read the number off the carbon imprint again.
‘There’s nothing I can do,’ she said after a while. ‘We don’t have that record.’
There was no option but to phone Ms. Moraigne back up. I dialed her room and leaned back in my chair. The ring tone droned for five, then ten rings. I sat in the cold. The gloom behind the vinyl counter top made the reception area look a little neater, more historical. I imagined the phone ringing in Ms. Moraigne’s room: the cheap slate-coloured headset vibrating next to the dusty pink bedspread, beside the dusty net curtains, with the carpet that smelt of cleaning fluid underneath it all.
She didn’t answer. I replaced the handset.
What I could do was ring the number Ms. Moraigne had left as her home address. She’d written it in angular handwriting with flourishes on the ‘4’ and ‘7’, using a black ink pen from her handbag. Our Bic wasn’t good enough. I dialed it. I had little justification; I should have just walked up the stairs to her room.
‘What do you want me to do?’ the man who answered the phone said. ‘Vouch for her? You’ll be lucky. She’s bankrupt.’
‘None of my business, love. Good luck to you.’
The number I’d just dialed started with ’52’ — a posh area. I wondered how long Ms. Moraigne planned on staying at the hotel.
The stairs creaked, and her slingback heels appeared on the landing. As she descended I looked at the mirror image of my face, my squashy nose, my watery eyes. When she reached the desk, she stared at me as if for the first time. It seemed to strike her that we were identical. But she didn’t comment on it. Her lips turned up a couple of millimeters at the corners. The similarity between us was repulsive in a way. Although I’m the kind of girl who looks okay if she keeps her hair neat, my face is nothing to write home about. Doubled up, I really noticed the bulging eyes, the long gap between nostrils and upper lip, the blotchy cheeks.
‘I asked for some nuts?’ Ms. Moraigne said.
‘I’m working on it.’
‘I’d like to speak to the manager, please. It’s not really necessary for me to tolerate this, is it?’
I looked carefully at Ms. Moraigne and smiled. It struck me, almost as if it were visible in front of me, that what conditioned the relationship between her and I was a current of money, a current always running in the guest’s direction. Only now, I saw her struggling in the current, washed towards me.
‘There’s a problem with your credit card.’ I stared at her. She looked down.
While I waited for her to reply, the phone rang. A guest wanted an iron sent up to their room. The irons were kept in a cupboard in the foyer, to Ms. Moraigne’s left. Usually I would have stood up and walked around the desk, out into the foyer, to get it.
‘A guest needs an iron sent up. I wonder if I could trouble you to go to that cupboard on your left and bring one over?’
Ms. Moraigne hesitated a moment and then, head bowed, walked over, got the iron out, and brought it to the reception desk.
‘Here you are,’ she said. Her hand trembled. She almost dropped the iron onto the desk, and as it fell forward, she grabbed it by the tip, propping it neatly up. I smiled at her. Her lips quivered.
‘I like the way you’ve … dyed your hair,’ she said.
‘You can go back up to your room if you like. I won’t worry about the nuts, will I?’ I swung around on my chair.
‘No.’ Ms. Moraigne left quickly, her heels clopping on the wooden floor at the base of the staircase. It was almost as if she no longer existed.
Misha Cahill hails from New Zealand and is currently completing a degree in English poetry. She has been published or has work forthcoming in Thieve’s Jargon, Skive, and Long Story Short. More from Misha can be found in the Vault of Smoke.