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THE WHITE BLOUSE (Excerpt)
A short story by Robert Pimm
If I am honest, I do not like border crossings.
It is a lonely place in the passport queue, waiting to enter the country of C— . But what to do?
In addition, I know I should not complain because I am here by choice. It was my decision, to apply for a job in this country. When I was successful I was so pleased that I went out shopping and bought myself a new white blouse, which is folded up in the big black suitcase at my side. But now, waiting in a room which I do not think has been painted or even cleaned for many years, I am wondering if I have made the right decision either applying for this job or accepting it.
The country of C— is remote. There are not even direct flights to C— from most countries. Instead, I must fly to a neighbouring country, R—. R— has a capital city whose airport is a hub for the region. From there I must take a taxi fifty kilometres to the border of C—. Once I am through passport control I will hire a taxi on the other side of the border and continue to my destination.
I have already been waiting thirty minutes.
But now I am at the front of the queue.
The passport officer is a tall man with a black moustache and a khaki-coloured shirt which is stretched out tight by a large belly. He looks down at me in a way I do not like.
‘So,’ he says in English. ‘You are coming to work in our country?
‘Yes,’ I reply. My work permit is with my passport on the counter in front of him so I cannot think what else to say.
‘You want to work in a hotel. As a head receptionist.’ He says this as if it is something dirty. ‘Your customers will like that. You are a very attractive woman.’
He smiles at me, but not in a good way.
‘Is that a problem?’ I say.
‘I think we must do a customs search.’ He looks at my black suitcase, then he looks for a longer time at me, and licks his lips. ‘Come.’ He points to a door behind the counter.
I do not like the look of this door, which looks as if it has not been painted or cleaned for even longer than the rest of the room. But the passport official is beckoning to me with my passport, which he holds in his big hand like a prize.
‘Actually, there is a problem.’
A woman is walking towards the passport officer on his side of the counter. She has an accent which is hard to understand. Perhaps she is from the Middle East, or from Iran, or from Afghanistan. Although she is on his side of the counter, she is not wearing a uniform. In fact, she is wearing a low-cut top, showing off her breasts, which are seeming to have trouble staying inside the bright yellow material which is stretched across them. She has a mane of black hair which is bouncing around as she walks towards the passport officer, and seems to be smiling at him.
I wonder why I did not see the woman before but then I notice she is tiny – smaller, even, than me.
‘Wait, please, one moment,’ the woman says. Then she turns to me and smiles in such a way that I realise that she has not been smiling at the passport officer at all. She has been showing him her teeth.
‘Tatiana,’ she says. ‘Welcome.’
I am so surprised, I almost want to cry, because these are the first kind words I have heard for many hours.
The woman in the yellow top turns back towards the official.
‘Please treat this case as a priority,’ she says. ‘We need her at the hotel as soon as possible.’
Her voice carries so much authority that I feel an urge to obey her, even though she is not speaking to me.
The passport official takes a step backwards. He glances at me and his mouth twitches.
‘She did not say she was working at your hotel,’ he says. ‘I was preparing a customs search.’
‘A what?‘ The short woman seems to swell in every direction. The bright yellow material is even more stretched than it was earlier. ‘If you do not allow her to pass immediately I shall ensure Mr Kagit hears of this and you will remain a passport official for ever.’
When the short woman says “passport” in her hard-to-understand accent it sounds like “piss-poor”. The man turns pale.
‘No,’ he says. ‘Of course.’ He blinks and moves towards the counter. There is a click and a thump, and he is holding my passport out to me, open at a page showing a red stamp, glistening wet.
He turns back to the short woman, but she is ignoring him.
‘Come with me, Tatiana,’ she says. ‘The Mercedes is waiting.’
‘But…’ I have to run to keep up with her. ‘Who are you?’
‘My name is Susan. I am Engineering Manager at the hotel. Ms N sent me.’
‘Ms N?’ I cannot keep the pleasure out of my voice. ‘I thought she was starting next month?’
‘She has arrived early.’ Susan waits a moment for me to catch up. ‘I think we are going to see some changes.’
‘I know Ms N from my last hotel,’ I say. ‘I applied for this job because I heard she will be the new General Manager here. One day, I want to be like her.’
‘We all want to be like Ms N.’ Susan smiles at the driver of the black Mercedes which is waiting for us. ‘But my guess is that not everyone will like her style.’
My arrival at the new hotel is a disappointment.
The first problem is that my job has been taken by someone else. Her name is Maria and she is a tall woman with straight blonde hair and a pretty face who wears high heels which make her look even taller. Her height and her good looks mean that she catches the eye of any customer entering the lobby of the hotel through the main entrance, whose manually-operated swing doors do not seem to have been to have been painted or cleaned much more recently than the waiting room at the border post. Most of the customers are men, so perhaps it is better that they are looking at Maria than looking at the swing doors. Unfortunately, Maria has never worked in a hotel before she started here two days ago, so I cannot understand why she has been appointed as head receptionist.
Susan takes me to the rooftop terrace bar of the hotel. ‘The reason is Mr Kagit,’ she says in her hard-to-understand accent. ‘Mr Kagit is a big man in C—.’ When she says “big” it sounds so much like “bitch” that I think she is making a joke. But Susan is not smiling. ‘Mr Kagit works in the President’s office and his brother is the Minister of Planning. Luckily for us, his favourite place in the country is this hotel. Sometimes this can help us, as you saw at the border. Mostly, it is a problem. Maria is his niece. This is why she has your job. So Ms N has put you in charge of the Platinum Megastar lounge of the hotel.’
When Susan says “Megastar” it sounds like “Monster”. Again I wonder if she is making a joke, but she is not smiling. This is good, because the Platinum Megastar lounge is reserved for the most honoured customers of our hotel chain and it would be inappropriate to make jokes about it.
The second reason I am disappointed when I arrive is that compared with the previous hotel at which I worked with Ms N, this one is what we call in the industry a “shitbox”. I am sorry to use this vocabulary, but this is the correct professional term. My previous hotel had a twenty-storey atrium and a one-star Michelin restaurant with a genuine Japanese sushi chef. The new hotel has a long, low lobby in which not all of the plants are even alive; and the restaurant has no stars at all.
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