“When you change the bed sheets, keep your mouth shut – you don’t want to breathe in other people’s dead skin.”
That was the first day working at the Braemar B and B. Those were the first words Mrs Edie Romano spoke to me. Her tartan jacket was worn like armour against the long day’s battle, with a few flecks of dandruff on its shiny collar. The end of her nose was a kilt of red and purple veins, her discontentment woven there.
She disliked me – or, at least, distrusted me. Her call, unrepentant and staccato, would antler its way upwards through three flights of stairs, reminding me how many more rooms I had to do. I had started working there the week after you had left. I needed the money and some kind of distraction to the unanswered questions that piled up like grubby snow drifts on the sides of the winter roads I cycled through, to begin my shifts.
It was overpriced. The breakfasts were bland. Bacon still wet, still slick with its animal self, sat in a pan of tepid oil before Mr Romano, dreaming of Sicily, slipped it onto a cold plate, the grease trying to mix with congealing baked beans. I handed them apologetically to puffy-faced American golfers, their bright pink jumpers at odds with the creaky low tables and fake flowers, before turning up the radio whilst Mr and Mrs Romano would have their weekly furious argument in the kitchen, her disapproval running like a cold water tap, his Italian invective like coarse salt, spilling over the benches.
Of course, I forgot to keep my mouth shut as I changed the beds: my muscles pulling like ropes through burning hands as I wrestled with double duvets, mildly stressed that I still had to put out the little celibate biscuits in their tight plastic wrapping into the baskets. Later, I pictured parts of someone else’s arms, wrists, fingers, lips, floating and settling downwards into my lungs, those hapless sponges forced into adoption of microscopic parts of people I had never met.
On the top landing, I would go and hide to eat a packet of shortbread and stare down at the street. A February sky hung too long and heavy, a dust sheet covering an out-of-tune piano. Leaning against the Black Watch drapes, I would stare up into their corners: cobwebs strung with dust, like Miss Havisham’s wedding pearls. Each plastic wrapper was scrumpled up into a ball and shoved down the inside of the clanking radiator, until I had created my own secret stash of flayed mice.
I went to my lectures afterwards, hands cracked and red with bleach, and listened while a Professor told us that human skin replaces itself nine hundred times in a lifetime. Some mornings, I wondered how many more times I would have to replace myself, before the memory of your skin next to mine would vanish, and leave me alive.
Olga Dermott-Bond is originally from Northern Ireland. A former Warwick Poet Laureate, she has had poetry and flash fiction published in various magazines including Rattle, Magma, Paper Swans Press, Reflex Fiction, Dodging the Rain, Fictive Dream and The Fiction Pool. In 2017 she was commended in the Winchester Poetry Prize and won the Forward/Emag creative-critical competition.
Photograph: Imogen Cunningham’s The Unmade Bed, 1958