‘Chambres À Louer’ by Steven Mayoff

It is not clear to me how long I have been in this room. Sometimes it feels like a minute, sometimes years. Sometimes I believe I may have been born here, but I am certain that one day I will die here. There are many smaller rooms within this room and I often move between them. Every morning the sister helps me into this chair and fastens the belt around my waist. She leaves the door slightly open, possibly so I won’t feel too lonely. I keep wondering if today is the day when the girl comes. I cannot remember the last time she paid me a visit.

Sometimes I sit by the window, looking out at the world. The sky above. The trees below. The nearby church with its immaculate lawn of sprouting headstones, its garden of the dead. This window is like constantly changing variations of the same painting. Barren winter. Budding spring. Flourishing summer. And soon comes the brittle autumn. Sometimes I roll my chair to the door and listen into the corridor. I listen for the other residents in their rooms. I listen for footsteps and to the bigger silence that is the corridor itself.

When the door opens a crack he enters, partly in shadow. Bonjour, petit homme, he says. He got lost on his way to the toilet. Maman’s new friend. He is tired and wants to sit. Je connais une histoire drôle, he tells me leaning close. I want to hear the story. It is about a worm in the garden who was lonely and wanted to find a companion. He holds up a finger to portray the worm and makes it wriggle across my blanket. Slowly disappearing underneath as if burrowing into the soft earth. His voice is both rough like stones on the shore of Plage Querqueville and gentle like the water that laps over them. Deep in the earth the worm finds a piece of rope. At first the rope does nothing, but soon, like magic, it stirs. The rope is a dreamer awakening, yawning and stretching to all its full length. I smell tobacco and sour wine on his breath. My face is hot, my mouth dry. I can barely swallow. Then Maman is at the door. Qu’est-ce que tu fais? she cries. Enfant diable!

I look up, startled to find this woman standing in my room. I recognize her, a resident from down the corridor. Her face is wide-eyed and frightened. She points at my unzipped trousers, shouting, Put it away, dirty man, put it away! One sister leads her back to her room and another helps me to zip up.

The sister has wheeled me toward the sunshine so I can look out. Through the window I watch the path below, one of the residents with his walker and a younger one beside him. Could be a son, possibly a grandson. Maybe a companion, like the one who comes to see me (a girl, I think, but she has a boy’s name). I follow them, watching as they turn the corner on the third-class deck.

This is my first voyage working in the galley. I walk faster to catch up. The boy is alone. A bit older than me in his tweed jacket. His wire-rimmed glasses make him look like a teacher. Es-tu perdu? He shakes his head. He seems quite shy, but soon I get him talking. He is a Dutch Jew travelling to Canada with his parents. I offer to show him around the ship. At first, he is not sure and acts a bit cold, but I can sense that he is lonely. It turns out he knows another passenger, a nineteen-year old girl I met in Cherbourg before we set sail. His mother is trying to play matchmaker for them. He finds it a nuisance and the girl does too.

I take him to a quiet nook off the main deck. This is a place I discovered early on. Somewhere I can go when I want to be alone. He likes it. He is a great reader and says this might be a good place to take a book. I don’t care much for books, but I like to daydream. He is interested in knowing what I daydream about. I want to visit strange countries and meet interesting people. At the same time, I slip my hand in his. His face does not change expression, as if he has not noticed. My fingers interlace with his and I ask him what kind of books he reads. While he is talking, rattling off a list of titles and telling me a bit about the stories, I raise his hand to my mouth and kiss the finely freckled white knuckles. I keep expecting him to pull his hand away, but he continues talking, naming different authors and how they use words as I place each of his fingers in my mouth one at a time. He never looks at me, what I am doing. His expression never changes and somehow that adds to the excitement.

You must be hungry to be doing that, the sister says and removes my finger from my mouth. I feel slightly annoyed, then a moment’s embarrassment. I want to make her laugh so I dig one finger into the inside of my cheek and pull it out to make a popping sound. Champagne pour tous!

She wheels me through the corridor, into the elevator (another tiny room) and down to a larger room with people sitting at tables with plates of food, bowls of soup, cups and cutlery, napkins tucked into their collars. Who are all these people? Some talk to each other. I cannot hear their words. Mouths move like in silent films, like the ones I watch in the cinema where I hide out from Maman.

The white light flickers over the tops of the heads of those in front. I see the faceless backs of those heads and believe we are all in this enchanted limbo, somewhere between the living and the dead. What appears on the screen is another world we can enter. A world of its own flickering reality. A place to disappear from myself. But the back of one head keeps turning back, catching the corner of my eye. When he sees me look he lingers a moment then turns back to the screen. This happens a few times until he gets up to go, glancing and smiling as he passes. I wait, not wanting to miss the film. Finally, I get up too. I see him waiting by a back door, which he exits through to an alley behind the theatre. As soon as I follow the door closes behind me. No way back in. I look around until I see him and two others. I know I should run, but I cannot move. Fear has turned my legs useless. They come after me. I need to run, but I am frozen to the spot.

Help, I cannot move, help me! My voice echoes in my ears. I am beating my hands on the table. Get me out of here! Help! Heads turn to look. It’s okay, a woman says. Here I’ve brought you some tea. Would you like some soup or a sandwich? She puts her hand on my arm and kneels beside me. I stare into her eyes. Looking for these parts of me that are disappearing.

My eyes feel hot and dry from watching the bright ghostly flickering. I am so afraid. I keep forgetting parts of myself in some of those rooms. I find myself in one then in another without knowing how I got there. I think it is the rooms themselves that keep moving while I sit very still. I am too frightened to move.

The woman finds a chair and sits on the other side of the table, facing me. She waits until I have sipped some tea. She smiles. Do you feel better? I put my hands flat on the table. I stay as still as I can. The rooms rotate around me like planets around a sun. Only, in my mind I am being eclipsed.

I need to speak with you, she says. I need you to look at me. Okay? Her face is kind. I nod. I try to follow what she is saying. Something about a trust that was in the will of somebody named Jeffrey. You remember Jeffrey? I don’t, but I nod anyway. She is telling me that the money is running out and I nod again. Do you understand? This is the money that allows you to stay here. We have to think about what we are going to do. Do you understand? I raise my cup of tea, take a sip and smile.

Mon Dieu, how long it has been since we’ve seen each other. When I first found myself in Montreal, looking for a place to live and seeing the sign on Rue Saint-Sulpice: CHAMBRES À LOUER. I kept thinking of you, wondering and hoping that maybe I could find you in this big city. A friendly face after all my difficulties. No longer a sailor. It is so good to sit in this small back room behind your shop. Always some tea on the little wood burning stove. Remember back on the ship? I worked in the galley, but in my off hours it was the three of us. Like the Three Musketeers, he used to say because he loved that book so much. His mother kept trying to make a match between you two.

And here it is years later. I still cannot believe she married him, even after she lost the baby. To marry him she decided to become a Jew. I try not to stare at her drab wig. Did you have to cut your beautiful hair? Even as she is talking, I keep thinking of her husband sitting in the upstairs flat. His fine white freckled knuckles. And I wonder if he too is thinking. Of the secret times we shared without her. I wonder if he remembers how she caught us once. Yet she still married him.

But you must not worry, she says, we will figure something out. We might have to move you to a different room. It’s possible we may even move you to another facility. We will do everything we can to work something out. I just want you to be aware of the situation. Do you understand? I nod. I cannot remember who this woman is. Why she is sitting here. I like her dark green jacket and yellow blouse. It looks so smart on her. I like her red hair. Her voice is kind, yet I feel afraid. I want to reassure her that I will do everything I can to understand what she is saying. I remember none of it.

When she gets up to leave I follow her with my eyes then become aware that there is an uneaten sandwich in front of me. I finish my tea and nibble at the corner of the sandwich. You can take that with you into the dayroom, the sister says and places the plate in my lap. She makes sure I am holding onto it and wheels me into the bright room where others sit in comfortable chairs. Two play chess. One flips through a magazine without looking at the pages. Some sit by the large window. There is artwork on the walls, some done by residents, some done by relatives. Some by volunteers. Animals. Flowers. Boats. Buses. Everyday artefacts that may no longer exist in our lives. There are also photographs of residents with their names in big bold letters beneath. They are like frozen mirrors. Fixed identities. This is who you are at this moment in time. There is one thing that connects all these rooms I find myself in, these chambres à louer.

But it is not the rooms that are for rent. It is Time that is for rent. The limited time that I spend in each room adds up to an eternity of floating back and forth. Each room is a rent in time, a huge hole, and I am here and not here. There and not there. I am between rooms at the moment. If I weren’t strapped into this wheelchair I might very well float away.

If I move to another facility how will the sisters find me? How will the girl know where I am? She will come soon, I am sure. And what about all these people, where will they go? How will their loved ones find them?

All these people have loved ones to visit them, Maman. All I have is you and it is not enough. Those loved ones remember these people to the world. That is the same world I want to remember me. I know what you think of me, Maman, how you feel about me being a sailor.

To see her lying in her sick bed fills me with dread. I have been away twice now, sailing the world. She hates it. I know you think I am doing it to get away from you, Maman. Look, I have brought you a sandwich. You must eat something. You must get your strength back. The doctor says you are not taking care of yourself. Of course I care, or else I would not be here, would I? Don’t I keep coming back? Who else is there but you?

She cannot forgive me for being a constant reminder of the man who came here by the sea and left by the sea. The one who abandoned her with a little bastard to bring shame on her. No, Maman, I was not able to find a nice girl, a good profession, a respectable address to erase your sins. Don’t you see that’s why I must leave? Why I am suffocating in Cherbourg? I know you think I am a nobody, a zero. No scruples, no morals. Oui, Maman, je suis une chambre à louer! I am the room where others come to forget themselves, but also where they discover themselves. I am the place where they hide their secret thoughts and desires and then leave as quickly as possible.

She won’t even look at me. I have been such a disappointment to her. She won’t even eat the sandwich I have brought her. I see the cigarettes and matches on her bedside table. The doctor has told me that they will only ruin her health. I pocket the matches. Sure, it will make her angry and she will only find other matches elsewhere. But what else can I do? I can only do this little thing. I can’t bring myself to tell her I am shipping off again in less than a week.

This not your room, monsieur, the sister cries. How did you get in here? You need to leave now. The sister bends over the woman on the bed, feeling her wrist. The body is still. Making no sound. Skin as white as the bed sheets. The sister clicks her tongue in a sorrowful way. Come, monsieur, we must go. The sister leaves the plate with the sandwich on the bedside table and wheels me out.

In my room, the sister takes out her syringe. A tiny pinprick and soon my thoughts are heavy. The way dark clouds sometimes look like airships. She undoes the strap in my chair, helps me to the toilet. She closes the door on her way out. I am on my bed. The crucifix hangs on the wall above my head. Do not cry, Jesús. Soon you will be in your Father’s house. Wandering from room to room. Maybe one day I will… but no. I do not think there is a place for me in such a house as the one you dwell in. I must clean up my own rooms first. For the time being I am tired. I need to rest. I try to make myself comfortable on this bed.

I notice something fall out of my pocket: a book of matches. Where in the world did I get these? I don’t smoke. Merci, Jesús. You heal the sick, feed the hungry, warm those who are cold and forgotten. You provide for us even when we are not aware of being in need. Best to put these in a safe place. I manage to lean over and stash the matches in the drawer of my bedside table. For safekeeping. Always for safekeeping.

 


STEVEN MAYOFF was born and raised in Montreal and moved to Prince Edward Island in 2001. His fiction and poetry have appeared in literary journals across Canada and the U.S. as well as in Ireland, Algeria, France, Wales. England and Croatia. His two books of fiction are the story collection Fatted Calf Blues (Turnstone Press, 2009) and the novel Our Lady Of Steerage (Bunim & Bannigan, 2015). Upcoming is a poetry chapbook Leonard’s Flat an ekphrastic cycle to be published by Grey Borders Books this year and a full-length poetry collection Swinging Between Water and Stone to be published by Guernica Editions in 2019.

Copyright © 2018 by Steven Mayoff. All rights reserved.