I moved across from the hotel when I was seven years old and my mother gave me to her parents, like a late Christmas present, just before the New Year. They lived in a two-bedroom flat and my grandmother had to move her sewing machine into the kitchen so that I had somewhere to put my bed and my Barbie motorhome, which my father had sent me from Brisbane and which I carried around with me, enormous and awkward, every time we went to the supermarket.
My mother lived forty-five minutes away with my baby brother Henry, who everyone called Porco because he was pink and chubby and beautiful while I, six years older, ground my teeth at night, keeping everyone awake and my mother in dentist bills and besides, she said, I was nasty and unpleasant to be around. So my mother moved me out and her boyfriend in—who at least looked a bit apologetic when he helped move my drawers into my new sewing-room-sized bedroom. ‘Sorry, Teddy,’ he said. ‘We’ll see you a lot, though, okay?’
They did not.
I started at a new school and made new friends that did not know all about my mother. At the old one, they all thought she was an alcoholic. I wished she had been, but the screaming and insults were just who she was.
On my eighth birthday, my mother brought her boyfriend and Porco to visit and blow out the candles on the sponge cake my grandmother had made. I had asked for chocolate, and my mother, being a normal person for once, whispered to me over the candles that she only ever had sponge cakes too because Grandma didn’t know how to make any other kind. I smiled at her and said maybe they could stay over. ‘I know the house is too small,’ I said, ‘But you could stay on the couch, and Porco and Carl could stay over at the No Vacancy.’
‘The hotel across the street.’ I pointed out of the window at the neon glow of the sign. ‘The No Vacancy.’
She screeched with laughter and I retreated like a snake towards my grandfather. ‘The No Vacancy? You dumbass, it’s not the name of the hotel.’
‘But it says it on the sign,’ I said.
‘You see what I had to deal with?’ she said to my grandmother, who said, ‘No.’
My grandfather put his arm around me and said, ‘A vacancy is when there is a room free. If the sign says no vacancy, it means there are no rooms free.’
‘But the sign always says no vacancy,’ I told him, in tears.
‘It’s okay,’ he said. ‘Have some more cake.’
I did not.
I was glad, tucked up in bed in the evening, that the hotel did not have any vacancies so my mother could not stay across the road. I usually waved goodbye from the door, but I didn’t want to look at the hotel sign again that day, or at her, or at my brother’s howling, kissable face. Instead, I went into my room and looked at my present from her, a calculator and a sticker book and a block of chocolate (through the wall I heard my grandmother hiss: ‘Did they just stop at a supermarket on the way here?’) and resolved not to look at the sign again.
For a week, I went to school by climbing over the back fence into the vacant lot behind our flat and walking around the block, and when my grandparents took me places in the car I covered my eyes with my hands until we left the street. The next Saturday, when everyone else was still asleep, I crawled behind the lace curtains in the lounge room and looked out at the sign. NO VACANCY, it said. After that, instead of not looking at it, I barely looked at anything else.
I used the notepad, ruler and fluffy pen my grandparents had given me for my birthday and ruled up a logbook to keep details of who went in and out of the hotel. After school, I would sit backwards on the couch, looking over at the building, while my grandfather brought me a bowl of cereal or a plate of crackers with bright yellow cheese. If anyone walked down the street I shuffled behind the curtain for a better view, but after four days I had still never seen anyone go in or out of the rooms or even the driveway, my notepad full of big fat zeros under each ruled day. I was disappointed, but since I was good at disappointment, I made a new resolution: I would investigate.
For the first few days, the extent of my investigation was crossing the road to my place in front of the hotel instead of at the traffic lights, but I couldn’t even look at the building as I hurried past. By Thursday, I had slowed down enough to look in the window of the office, and through the glass, I saw a man sitting at a desk. He looked up and I gave a yelp and ran right to the edge of the nature strip, my toes over the edge, willing the cars on the road to move faster so that I could get back home and away from his line of sight. Inside, my grandmother was waiting with her hands on her hips.
‘I saw you,’ she said sternly. ‘Since when did you think it was okay not to cross at the crossing?’
I was almost relieved when she told me I wouldn’t get any snacks that afternoon and to never do it again. Making eye contact with that man had almost been too much, but at least I did have some new information: there was someone inside.
My grandparents’ flat was at the back of the block, so to see properly into the motel I had to use a stool to get to the stepladder in the garage, and then the stepladder to get to the highest shelf in my bedroom cupboard to reach my grandfather’s old binoculars. I put them, along with my grandmother’s magnifying glass, my logbook and a muesli bar into a backpack and tunnelled behind the couch, under the curtain, next to the ducted heating vent and set up my detective office. My best school friend Ruby was in the detective agency as well, but she was only allowed to use the magnifying glass to look out of the window because the binoculars being out of their special box was already a secret and I wasn’t sure enough that Ruby could be trusted. She couldn’t see very well anyway, but she didn’t want to wear glasses so she’d never told her parents, and just pressed the magnifying glass against her eye and marvelled at boring things like the carpet and the back of the couch and the roses my grandmother had planted against the window right outside.
One bright winter Saturday, my grandfather, after huffing at me and Ruby spending too much time inside, gave us two dollars and told us to go to the milk bar for snacks and a Peppermint Patty for him. My grandmother gave us another two dollars at the door and whispered, ‘I think it’s been a while since he last bought one, so here’s enough for something for you as well.’
We skipped up the street, kicked a rock, talked about school. Ruby was in love with the teacher, who wore flowery skirts and had a British accent and sounded like she was from television. I bought my grandfather’s Peppermint Patty and we spent another half an hour anguishing over how to get the most out of our remaining two dollars and fifty cents, then left, our prizes in our hands, to go home.
‘Why don’t we go behind the hotel?’ Ruby said. ‘We might be able to see into one of the rooms from there.’
‘Why would we do that?’ I squealed, terrified.
‘Maybe we’ll see someone kissing,’ she said in a hushed voice.
Kissing was pretty interesting, and the thought of it led us both down the gravel laneway that ran between the hotel and the houses behind it. The sun had already fallen behind the fence, leaving the alley cold and damp, and we huddled together as we walked. Ruby had forgotten her gloves so we held hands inside of mine.
Behind the hotel was a carpark that opened up onto the lane, and there were at least four cars parked inside. ‘That’s why I never saw anyone drive in!’ I said, detective work done.
‘Oh,’ said Ruby, disappointed. ‘I thought it was haunted.’
One of the rooms backed onto the laneway. We walked by it and Ruby tiptoed to the window. ‘It’s okay,’ she said. ‘It’s empty.’
I shouldn’t have listened to someone who needed glasses. I peered inside and saw a room much dirtier than I expected, with shredded paper all over the floor and empty cans everywhere and writing all over the wall that I couldn’t read even though I was excellent at English, and on the bed was a pale old man in baggy underpants the same colour as the sheets who rolled over and stared up at me with his big yellow eyes and opened his gummy mouth and I screamed and fell over and Ruby screamed and ran off and I hauled myself up and ran as fast as I could up to Ruby and back home to my grandfather and his squashed Peppermint Patty and then I was done with that hotel.
Two months later Porco came to live with us as well. My mother said it was just for a little while until Porco got over his current phase, which was crying. ‘What do you mean, get over it?’ my grandmother said. ‘Do you think you going away will make it better?’
‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ my mother said, in the way that meant that everyone but her was ridiculous.
My grandfather went to the garage and hauled out a cot that they had bought a few weeks ago on sale. I had been with them at the time and asked, alarmed, why we were getting a cot. ‘Just in case Henry comes for a sleepover one day,’ my grandmother had said. While my grandfather set the cot up—in their room, I was relieved to see—my grandmother held my brother in her arms and told me to go get the stool and grab the tin of formula from the top of the kitchen cupboard. Behind that, I saw bibs, plates, tiny spoons, bottles, and two neatly folded cotton jumpsuits.
The next day my aunt and cousin came to visit. Emma was five and always dressed like she was about to go see the opera or something. Our mothers were sisters, and Emma’s was awful as well, but in a different way. There was an uncle, too—’The only good one,’ my grandfather would lament—but he lived in Maroochydore and we didn’t see him much. My aunt had brought over some of Emma’s old clothes for Porco, ‘But not the pink ones,’ she said, ‘Because I don’t want to make his life any harder if anyone thinks he is…’ and then she pulled a face I didn’t understand and my grandmother said, ‘Who thinks that of a baby?’
I took Emma into my room to play with my Barbie motorhome while I sat near the door and eavesdropped.
‘You know,’ my aunt said breathily, ‘I knew Hillary would have trouble with Theodora as soon as I heard the girl wouldn’t take the breast. And you spoil her with—’
I barrelled into the room and yelled, ‘They do not!’
‘Excuse me?’ my aunt said.
‘It’s okay,’ my grandmother said calmly. ‘Go back into your room, Teddy. You’re fine.’
As soon as I turned, there was the unmistakable, heart-shattering sound of breaking glass from my bedroom. Everyone ran, but I knew, like a vision, what I would see. And there was Emma, my detective bag pulled out from under my bed, and everything upturned on the floor. And, leaning against the Barbie motorhome, my grandfather’s own grandfather’s binoculars, next to a tiny pile of glass.
I met the old man on the way home from school. He was in the corner of a park bench, huddled into himself. My grandparents always told me not to talk to people like that on my own, but I stopped and looked at him because he reminded me of the old man from the hotel. He wasn’t that old man, whose gummy mouth still came up in my dreams sometimes, but he was still old and very sad and a little bit asleep. I said, ‘Hello,’ and he said, ‘Hnnrgh.’
‘Are you okay?’
‘Tired,’ he said.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘I woke you up.’
‘No you didn’t,’ he said and looked at me properly. ‘You off to school?’
‘School’s over,’ I said. ‘It’s nearly four o’clock.’
‘Oh,’ he said. ‘Nearly night time.’
‘It’s cold outside. Do you have a blanket?’
‘Yes,’ he said, pulling a threadbare sheet further over him.
‘You should go somewhere warmer,’ I said. ‘I know a place.’
I told him that I wasn’t really allowed to talk to strangers and he could follow me but had to stay far away. I walked backwards to keep an eye on him and was almost at the end of the street before he gathered up his things and followed.
Outside the hotel, I waited until he caught up with me. It was the closest I had been to it for a while, but since Porco arrived a fortnight before, I had taken to setting up my tent outside on the driveway and watching the hotel again until my grandfather came home from his new job and honked at me to get out of the way.
The old man said warily, ‘What is this?’
‘I think they have rooms here for you,’ I said, and went into the office.
It was old inside, and rundown, and smelled like mice and oranges. The man at the desk was the same one I saw through the window months ago, but while I had remembered him with fear, up close he was a normal-looking man with a name tag on his clean blue shirt that said BOB.
The old man followed me in but stayed in the doorway. ‘I’m not with her,’ he said.
‘He is,’ I corrected. ‘He needs a room.’
‘You should take your grandpa to a hospital,’ Bob said.
‘He’s not my grandpa. I just found him like this.’
The old man rocked, unsteady, against the doorframe.
‘Do you have any money?’ Bob said to him, and the man just blinked.
‘Hold on,’ I said. The old man moved out of my way as I went through the door, and I told him: ‘Wait right there.’
In the bottom of my bedroom cupboard there was a shoebox full of homework sheets and underneath those, a small velvet pouch. Inside was all of the money, three hundred dollars, that I had saved up over the years. First I was saving for a bike, but then I started saving so that when my mother realised she’d made a mistake and wanted me back, I could afford the taxi or the bus back to her, or the train fare to my uncle when my grandparents realised they didn’t want me anymore either.
Back inside, I said, ‘I’ve got the money,’ and put the little roll of notes, held together with a green hair tie, on the table.
The old man woke up then. ‘I can just take that, you know, get some food and—’
Bob swiftly took the money off the counter and counted the notes out. ‘You’re good for six weeks,’ he said to the old man. ‘Go see if you can find somewhere inside.’
‘Aren’t you going to give him a key?’ I asked.
Bob just smiled at me, while the old man picked up his backpack and lumbered out of the door and into the forecourt. ‘Why does your hotel always say No Vacancy?’ I asked.
‘So we don’t attract the wrong types,’ Bob said.
The next day my grandmother met me outside of school at three thirty, pushing a sleeping Porco in the pram. I broke off from Ruby and ran at her, saying, ‘Is Grandpa okay?’
She sat me down on a chair and said, ‘Today the man from the hotel came over and told me what you did. He felt bad about it and brought back all one hundred dollars as well. Teddy, what were you thinking, taking some homeless stranger to a hotel like that?’
‘He was cold,’ I said. ‘I’d seen an old man like him in the hotel once.’ I was already in trouble, so I said, ‘Ruby and I spied in a window.’
She studied me. ‘Bob looks after people who can’t really look after themselves,’ she said. ‘He doesn’t even own the hotel. Do you know what a squatter is?’
‘Yes,’ I said, thinking about exercise in PE class and not really understanding why she had brought it up.
‘Why did you spend all that money on him?’
I was going to tell her about how I didn’t think I really needed the money anymore, because when Emma broke Grandpa’s binoculars all he said to me was, ‘They had a good run,’ and wiped his eyes and patted me on the head. Instead, I said, ‘He was really very cold.’
‘You know,’ she said, and kissed me on the head, ‘You are nothing like your mother.’
Fiona Hardy is a writer, reviewer, and bookseller from Melbourne. Her Text Prize-shortlisted middle fiction book, How to Make a Movie in Twelve Days, will be published by Affirm Press in 2019. Her writing has been in publications including The Big Issue Fiction Edition, Gargouille, Reading Victoria, and Books+Publishing.