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Sport 37: Winter 2009

Accommodations: 3

page 51

Accommodations: 3

The crowd at the gala event is applauding the guest speaker. Matthew is at the back, clapping without passion. He is attending the event on behalf of Cardier. He has done many of these nights—it is the season. He will take one drink, circulate, then return to his apartment above the 24-hour Food Metro.

The speaker has made a joke—people are laughing. Matthew rubs his face, looks ahead, bleakly.

On his periphery, there's a young woman. She is not facing the front. She is watching him—closely. He tries to ignore her.

She keeps staring.

'So, you work for this charity?' he says, at last.

'No. I don't know any of these people. Except,' she says, pointing, 'those two over there. We all three work for this hotel. We all work here—how do I say this? On the sly.'

She watches him.

'My name is Helena.'

She talks more, asking questions and smiling.

At last Matthew acknowledges that, yes, he is very young for someone of his situation—a good position at Cardier, an apartment of his own. She requests his contact details, and he hands them over, on a business card.

'You don't have many visitors, do you?' says Helena, the next morning. She is standing on the balcony of his apartment without socks or shoes. 'Look!' she says. 'There's a parade! I can see Santa! Santa Claus, down there!'

Matthew is in the bedroom, sitting on the bed's edge. His elbows are on his knees. His head is down. He has no interest in looking out at the weekend.


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'Yes!' says Helena. 'And elves! There's elves too!'

Helena moves into his apartment, bringing two others—the two she pointed out at the hotel. They are all in their twenties, same as Matthew.

'These people come with me,' she says. 'Zak. Mara. They are from Plovdiv too.'

Matthew lifts a hand in greeting. Then he watches as the new pair try out his bedroom and clothes.

'We are a community, we three,' Helena says, following his eyes. 'And now four. I hope we can all become friends.'

Zak is putting on a white shirt, one Matthew intended for tomorrow's breakfast meeting.

'How long have you worked at the hotel?' Matthew asks Helena, still watching the other two. They are holding up clothes, comparing. They have impassive expressions.

Smiling, Helena licks yoghurt from a finger. 'This is probiotic,' she says. 'You're a good host—kind.'

'That's because I like you.'

'And I like you,' she says, as if surprised. 'More than I expected to, maybe.'

By the end of the week they have established territories. Helena has the double bed, Matthew the bedroom floor; in the lounge, Zak has the couch and coffee table, Mara the carpet. All share the kitchen and bathroom. Four toothbrushes—one primly intact, three worn— crowd a stainless steel beaker in the bathroom.

Running a tap, Matthew fudges his hair before work, thinking of Helena, of her two friends who now squat in his lounge. 'These are my decisions,' he says, working spikes into his hair. 'I make my reality. I can choose the right path here, or the wrong one. I can do this.'

This is the way he psyches up for work too—these same phrases.

At night, Helena teases him for not sharing the bed with her. Although they make love frequently he leaves the bed soon after, retiring to a floor-mat to kip down facing the wall.

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'Not yet,' he tells her from down there. 'I'm not ready.' It is still only one year since his last partner left him, leaving large ripped silent holes.

'Okay, silly,' Helena says, moving her legs up there on the bed sheets, in a running motion.

Every night he makes dinner for the four of them, and Helena collects contributions from her silent friends. All three receive gratuities from the wealthy guests at the hotel.

'Tips are up today,' she says. 'You could buy more feta tomorrow, maybe?'

'Yes,' Matthew calls from the kitchen, adding white wine to a sauce. He has become expert at meals that go far—pastas, stews. 'We'll receive the electric bill soon.'

'In that case, I shall smile extra hard at the hotel tomorrow,' says Helena. 'We all will.'

The others nod gravely. Mara is wearing a T-shirt that says, Cardier Wildcats Dragonboat Team.

'Things will improve,' says Helena.

She has the best English of the three, but like her friends she works for cash and has no friends at the embassy.

At night Matthew lies awake on his floor after the lights are all out, listening to the noises of the others in his rooms—their coughs, sighs, turnings over. These sounds merge with the hiss and sough of the electric doors at the downstairs Food Metro.

At last he says, 'Are you awake?'

Her voice comes down, 'Mmm.'

'I think I'm almost ready. I'll sleep up there soon. Tomorrow night, maybe.'

He listens hard, and he thinks he can hear her smiling.

Later that week, in the night, Helena pads from the bedroom to comfort Mara, who is coughing again. Waking up, Matthew goes to the bathroom. As he walks through the lounge, he doesn't look at the three with their backs turned on his sofa. They are swapping low urgent phrases in their own language. Recently, Mara has become page 54 very ill. She coughs and sweats and stays home. She has not been able to work at all.

'I am the one with options,' Matthew tells the tiled bathroom. 'I have this apartment that is almost mine. I have money. This makes me empowered and free.'

He remains in the bathroom for some time, repeating these phrases to his reflection.

When he returns from the bathroom, all the lights are on. Helena comes toward him with her arms open. Zak is on the couch now; Mara is on the floor. Both are very still, entranced by the glows and shapes that move on his television.

He takes Helena's outstretched hands. 'Whatever happens now, you, my love, are safe here. You can depend on me.' He holds her hands firm. 'I can help you—you and Mara. I want to. Knowing this, knowing I can say this . . . it's . . . I can't explain this feeling.'

Her eyes are so open and tender.

'Really,' he says. 'This is a new, big thing for me. I'm so grateful. You've helped me.'

He blinks—she is reaching both hands to his temples, wiping with deliberate slow thumbs at his eyes.

'Really,' he says. 'I mean it. Stay. I want you here.' Somehow he knows from the way Helena is holding his face that she will leave soon.

'You will find something else,' she says. 'You'll survive, baby. You'll find the next thing.'

'What do you mean?' says Matthew, blinking again, brave. 'What do I need to find?'