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In a small room, in an unknown place, someone is peeping through a keyhole at someone peeping through a keyhole at someone else in the room next door. They are all spying on other people endlessly, and that’s all they are doing.
In a room that isn’t mine, one I don’t recognize, I wake from sleep surprised to find myself alone. I look to my right and see a black telephone on a small, drawerless side table next to the double bed with the blue bedspread that I’m lying on. I sit up. There’s a plain, grey book next to the phone, with no picture or design on the front. It’s entitled Sole Choices. The author’s name is my own.
I don’t recognise this book. Never heard of it. How can I – someone who has never attempted more than a few short stories that I’m too embarrassed to publish – find my name inscribed on a book as the author? How?
I daren’t open the pages. A voice inside me says: “Ignore it. Keep away from it.” There’s a switch on the wall above the bedside table. I flick it and the room is plunged into pitch-black. I flick it again and there’s light once more from the neon bulb in the ceiling’s centre.
The walls are grey: my favourite colour. It makes me feel tremendously calm inside and brings peace to my soul. And, even though it’s winter, the temperature in the room is reasonable. There’s a picture on the wall opposite of a black cap with a tie below it of the same colour, though it’s decorated with red crows, some of which hover away from the tie, turning black.
I remember my mobile phone. Where is it? It must be in my pocket. I feel for it, but can’t find it in the strange one-piece nightgown I’m wearing. There’s a single pocket on its left, which has a dried-out red biro inside it. Surprised to find it there, I take it out and put it near the book. I pick up the phone. There’s a continuous dial tone. I try and call my mobile, but the line goes dead as soon as I dial the third digit. It could be a hotel-style phone, so I dial nine, like you do to get an outside line, but it immediately goes dead. I press zero to get through to the operator, but nothing happens. I put the phone back down.
I wonder where my mobile is, and where I am, and when I came here, and who brought me. What had I been doing to end up in this place?
I try and remember. Then I do remember. I’d been walking at midnight in one of the side roads behind the hotel where I was taking my annual holiday. Then . . . no, I can’t remember what happened next. I concentrate. I close my eyes. I try and remember, but my memory betrays me. I try and work out what might have happened to me. Have I had a bang on the head, been knocked out and brought here, like you see happen in films? I feel my scalp. No trace. Have I blacked out for some other reason, and someone has brought me here? Have I been given an injection? I don’t know!
OK, I must stand up, get up. I feel such weariness in my limbs, like I’ve just played a lot of sport after a long break. I get up. The floor’s really cold. I look at my bare feet. I can’t see my shoes anywhere. I go to the door to the right of the bed and try the handle, but it’s locked. Fear engulfs me.
I notice the door has a keyhole you can look through. It’s one of those that takes a big, old, jagged-toothed key. I haven’t seen one like that for years, maybe not since we moved out of the old house. What’s behind the door? I bend down to look through the keyhole to find out. There’s another room, with a man standing in it putting a book on a bookshelf that looks like mine. Then he turns around so that his face is straight in my eye line, and sits down. I look closely at him. That man is me.
That “me” is wearing the pyjamas I normally wear when I’m travelling. He’s sitting in front of a TV screen watching a foreign film starring Meryl Streep. I always follow the movies of this star, but this film seems strange, I haven’t seen it before. I guess it is a new one, because in her face I can see she is not young any more. He doesn’t notice me turning the door handle. Maybe it’s because he’s preoccupied with something. I call my name out to him while looking through the keyhole, but he never turns around. I shout louder: “Excuse me!” He doesn’t stir. The TV isn’t loud. The sound is certainly low enough to hear my voice. I try and open the door again. I jerk at the door handle, but my double doesn’t move an inch. It’s like he can’t hear anything. Impossible for him to be hard of hearing, because he’s watching TV.
I need to calm down. I go back and sit on the side of the bed. My eyes take a tour of the room. Beneath the picture of the crows there’s a medium-sized fridge. I walk over and open it. It’s full of ring-pull cans, bottles of water, cartons of good quality juice, and easy-peel fruit you don’t need a knife for. There is enough food to last someone a week.
I think of a knife! Of course! If I can find one it might somehow help me escape. Maybe to break open the lock, or dig a hole in the wall to make my escape. I’ve seen it done in so many films. There’s an open door to my left that leads to a small bathroom. I go in and look around. There’s a handle only on the inside. The bathroom’s very small. Just a sink and a toilet. There’s no extractor fan in here. It’ll stink. There’s no mirror, either, and no towel. It’d be hard to have a wash in here, and impossible to see your own face, to reassure yourself how you look. I exit the bathroom and go back to sit on the bed. What am I going to do here, I say to myself? And what is my double next door going to do? Maybe I’m dreaming. I must be dreaming.
Drowsiness still lies heavily on me. I need to rest. I lie down, wrap myself in the bedcovers, and fall into a deep sleep, an escape from everything.
I wake, terrified. I just dreamed I was driving a long way for an important meeting with senior staff in an office block outside the capital. When I got there, I realized just before I got out of the car that I had forgotten to put my sandals on. I was in a tight spot and couldn’t think what to do. Anyway, what I do at least know now, waking up in this room, is that this is real and not a dream itself like I thought it was. I try to go back to sleep, but hear a phone ring. I turn to the phone beside me, but realise the ringing is not coming from there. I remember my double in the room next door. The ringing comes from in there, and it’s still going on. I go to the door, bend down and peep through the keyhole. I am not there, I mean he is not.
How long have I been asleep? I don’t know. There’s no way to tell the time, or even the date. All I know is that we are in January, maybe mid-January. I haven’t been worried about the date in the last few days. I’ve been on holiday and determined not to worry about what time it is, or what I time I go to sleep or wake up. The ringing stops, and then starts again. I go back and peep through the keyhole. There’s no-one in the room.
I have to find a way to get out. I look right and left, wondering how to do that and notice the book by the side of the bed. I remember my unease about opening it. Maybe I’m anxious about what I might find in it. I pick it up and open it. After the cover there’s a page that has my name under the title in neat handwriting. On the next page, there is a single, centred paragraph headed ‘Introduction’. The text says: “In a small room, in an unknown place, someone is peeping through a keyhole at someone peeping through a keyhole at someone else in the room next door. They are all spying on other people endlessly, and that’s all they are doing.” I don’t understand what this strange introduction means. I turn over the page. The next one is blank. I look through the rest of what is a huge book, but am surprised to find all the pages blank. I close the book, and return it to its place, wondering whether I am really the author of a one-paragraph, weird or ridiculous book. What a joke!
I peep through the keyhole again. “I” haven’t come back. I sit back down on the bed and think about my family. They won’t notice I’m missing for at least a fortnight. I said, before I left, that I’d be away that long and that they should leave me to it. I told them: “I’m off somewhere to be in solitude, to purge myself of everything. I’m leaving my mobile off the whole time. I’ll do without it.” I recall now I didn’t take my mobile with me when I went out for a walk last night. I try to recall anything else from last night, but my mind’s a blank. Something has made me forget what happened afterwards. I remember that Mahra is the only person I told where I’d be, and I even told her the hotel room telephone number. I wonder if she’ll notice I haven’t been in touch. Will my not being in touch bother her? Will she contact the hotel to ask after me? Is she thinking about me now?
I need to get out of here. I stand at the door yelling: “Can anyone hear me?” I listen hard, but no-one responds. What’s going on? Is this where it ends, in a room next to one containing someone who looks exactly like me? Or is someone having a really bad joke at my expense? I go over to the door and bang on it violently. I pause a moment, then yell: “Please open the door! Don’t make me break it down!”
Still silence. I feel crushed. What am I going to do?
I go to the fridge and take out a bottle of water and an apple. I eat the apple and throw the core in the bin. I drink some of the water. After eating the apple, I thought it had tasted a little off. I wonder if the food and drink might be poisoned. I considered making myself throw up, but then changed my mind. Why would anyone trying to do away with me choose that bizarre method? Why would they lock me up like this if they were? If I had any enemies I could recall, I might suspect them of it, but I couldn’t think of anyone.
I put the bottle back in the fridge and go back to the bed, dwelling on my solitary confinement. It reminds me of something that happened to a neighbour friend of mine when I was a kid and he was a year younger than me. I went around to his house one day to play. For some reason or other that I forget now, he locked himself in a room and couldn’t open the door. He was screaming and crying hysterically to be rescued, but I couldn’t seem to help him. Then his brother came along and told him to push the key under the door so he could open it for him. When he opened it, we went in and we saw he’d wet himself out of panic, and I could tell how embarrassed he was that we’d noticed. His brother started laughing loudly, and I went straight back home. When we were grown up, the neighbour told me he’d dreamed of locking himself in that same room again for many years afterwards.
Now I hear the door in the next room opening. It must be him. My double. I jump up and make for the keyhole. I bend down and peer through it. He puts a number of books on the bedside table. When he takes his outer clothes off, I notice he has my underwear on. He takes these off in the same way I do. He is now completely naked. That body is my own! I mean it’s my body, my arms, and my legs. How could someone else have an exact copy of my body? Is that how I look when I dress and undress? Those broad shoulders; those ugly-looking patches of dark skin; that bushy pubic hair. I seem a stranger to myself when he undressed before my very own eyes. I used to think my body had no defects. Maybe I used to avoid looking in the mirror. I never once thought of ugliness in my own body that I would be able to see by looking at it naked from a distance. I always used to tell myself that clothes hide many a deformity, a conclusion I drew from that time with the skirt. It was some girl sitting in some place I can’t remember now. The short skirt showed off her saggy inner thigh. If her skirt had been just a little longer that flabbiness would have been hidden and her beauty preserved in my eyes.
I’m still following him through the keyhole. He’s turned all the lights out except for one faint light shining from somewhere or other from the corner of the room. I can still make him out, though. He pulls back the bed cover, and, naked, he gets in. He turns the reading light standing on the little bedside table on. Now I can see him more clearly. He’s picks up a small book that was on the edge of the bed. I try to make out its title from the spine, but I don’t know it. It might be Kawabata’s House of the Sleeping Beauties. If only the light were brighter, I would be certain, especially as it’s one of my favourite novels.
Stillness prevails. I’ll call him and maybe he’ll hear me. I yell to him and watch him through the keyhole: “Can you hear me? Let me out of this room! I’m begging you! Why am I locked in like this? And where am I? Who brought me here?”
But he carries on reading, turning the pages like a deaf person. I stand in front of the door and hammer on it with my fists. I yell at the top of my voice: “Can’t you hear me? I want to get out of here! You’ve locked me in here for no good reason. You’ve violated my liberty!” I bang even more violently on the door with my fists. Now I’m really frightened. I cry until I’m exhausted, then stop and pull myself together. I wipe the tears away with my palms, and look through the keyhole. He’s still reading, with a strange kind of coldness. I feel pain in my back from bending and peering too often, and go back to lie on the bed. It must be late, late enough at least to have to read by a faint light. It can’t be daytime, because you don’t have time to read and take an afternoon nap. I wonder if he knows I’m here. Is he spying on me? I remember that famous TV programme, Big Brother, where a group of people are filmed living in one place. Is something like that happening to me? I survey the ceiling looking for hidden cameras, but don’t see any.
I go back to thinking about that “me” in the next room. I haven’t heard him speak yet. How could I, since he’s alone? I might hear him if someone else gets in touch. That also makes me feel tremendously afraid. I feel like very alone, cut off from life, from humanity. It’s like I’ve been cast out, and that my life is going to end in this place, pitifully, wretchedly. I can smell death in the room now. I can taste its bitterness in my mouth. My heart is beating violently like a bird struggling to get out of its cage. I curl up on the bed, close my eyes, and doze for a few seconds until I suddenly awake, again with fear. I’m afraid he’ll come into the room while I’m asleep and kill me. I think it over a while and dismiss the idea. If he had wanted to kill me, he would have already done so by now. It seems he has some other plan for me that I don’t yet know about. I say a few prayers then give in to sleep, as I usually do in the face of one crisis or other.
I don’t know how many hours I’ve slept. Maybe I just dozed a little. I get off the bed and bend down to spy through the keyhole. My double is sleeping on his back with the bedclothes off. That must be how I sleep. For the first time, I feel the need to go to the bathroom. I go in, relieve myself, and come back out. I don’t feel sleepy. I decide to observe him until he wakes up. I kneel down and look through the keyhole. My pain in my back comes back again. If there were a chair in here it would help. I look around and spot the small table on the right side of the bed. I take the book and phone off it and place it under the keyhole. It does the job. I sit observing him. My double tosses and turns but doesn’t wake up. I don’t know if I do the same as him, especially as he is sleeping heavily, as I generally do. This kind of surveillance seems a little boring. I go over to the fridge and pour a carton of peach juice down my throat. I go back to watch again, but soon feel once more bored, so I decide to get undressed and go to bed like he’s done. Our beds are identical, even down to the coverlets. How can the same man sleep in two different rooms at the same time? Were we born twins and our parents abandoned us? If so, which of us, if either, lives with our real family?
I recall José Saramago’s novel, The Double. It tells of a man who sees someone that looks exactly like him playing a bit part in a film that he rents from a video shop, and was recommended to him by a friend. His double is a hotel receptionist. After a great deal of effort, he finds his double, but discovers that in real life he’s a bad person, who only brings him troubles. What if the same scenario is happening to me? What if my double wants to do me harm?
I convince myself these thoughts are the typically stupid and pointless ones that come to me just before sleep. In the morning, as usual, I’ll laugh at them. But my thoughts still race away. I think about my sleeping double next door. Will you wake up and spy through the keyhole at me sleeping? Or will you open the door to observe how I sleep?
I recall that paragraph written in the book beside me, with my name on it. It was about spying. Is my life here to be solitary, in a room with a keyhole that lets me spy on someone who looks just like me in the next room, all being orchestrated by one or other of us? Am I part of all this surveillance? But the one I’m spying on acts normally and I don’t notice him spying through a keyhole at me or anyone else. Does it make any sense for him to spy on me or anyone else like that?
I still suspect a camera is watching me from somewhere. It doesn’t have to be in the ceiling. It could be an ultra-sensitive miniature camera in the wall or that painting, just like those spies use in books, newspapers, and films. I turn the light off, and am in complete darkness. I strain my eyes to look for any point of light that might lead me to a camera, but find nothing. I turn the light back on and check around the room, on the ceiling, in the corners, around the bed, in the bathroom and in the fridge, but find nothing suspicious. I take the painting off the wall and examine it closely back and front. I check over the telephone thoroughly, then pull the cable out of the wall socket, and put the phone in the bathroom as a precaution. It might be bugged.
I surrender myself to my fate. I tell myself they can film and do what they want. I’ll see how this calamity that I’ve fallen into works out. I remember my sleeping double and hope I wake before him so that I can see how he wakes, or, put it another way, how “I” do. Mahra’s face appears before me. I long for her so much now. I pull the bedclothes completely over me, and fall sleep.
Translated by John Peate
Excerpted from Ghurfa Wahida La Takfi (One Room is Not Enough), published by Difaf Publishing, Beirut and Algiers 2016.
Longlisted for the 2017 International Prize for Arabic Fiction
Published in Banipal 59 - The Longlist (Summer 2017)
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