The Guest

By Mira Mattar, 16 October 2012

A short story exploring the annihilating power of luxury


By Mira Mattar


Initials have been sewn into the white gloves. CL. Barely visible. Off-white on white. On laundry day CL can identify them. She won’t let the other girls borrow her sewing kit. They can mix and match for all she cares. Limey bitches.


CL wears the gloves to unpack the guest’s belongings. She mustn’t allow any naturally occurring oils to travel from her fingertips to the guest’s things even though, in this case, neither the guest nor her belongings are of much value. Still though, CL likes to know who she’s dealing with. She concludes she’s dealing with an inefficient person. When she talks to her she will play up her accent, let in a few jibes at the boss’ expense. She likes to make people feel comfortable that way.


Regarding colour and shape, the guest had packed aiming to minimise impact. One of the placement consultants at the agency said the mothers always look through your things. Traces of criminality or deviance had been left well behind, locked in a drawer, in a desk, in a room, in a house. But though she had located her smartest most casual smart-casual clothes, the guest still somehow got it wrong. The child she is there to teach cringes and asks if she is really going out like that. (At least her English is improving. Conditionals are notorious.)


Stupid. All her things have betrayed and humiliated her. Twice used razor gross with stubble. Tubes squeezed haphazardly. Vulgar yellow toothbrush. Half peeled-off price labels. Off-brand pound shop crap. These are not protective amulets.


Here the soap is changed daily. All the toiletries onboard are by a well-known London perfumier and clothes designer whose name adorns every product. Once the name has rubbed off the soap – which happens after only a use or two – it is replaced by an identical one and the guest is reminded. What happens to all those barely used and now anonymous soaps she wonders.


At dinner everyone reeks of lime and grapefruit. It comes off them in waves. The hosts nod at the guest and smile. Neither can speak the other’s language. Nothing else passes between them until a common word like ‘iPhone’ or ‘tiramisu’ seals the gap.


CL laid and decorated this table. She imagined it first and then made it match. She got these tiny magenta coloured feathers and stayed up late threading silver beads onto their stems. Her bunkmate kept asking her to turn out the light but she ignored her. Seeing the light reflect off the beads was more than worth the next day’s petty shunning. There is a reason CL is the head stewardess.


The boss has a new bride who is keen to make her presence felt. She likes to eat from the communal platter with her fork. Territory. She loves the feeling it gives her. Despite all that is on offer the child refuses to eat anything but plain spaghetti for lunch and dinner. The boss doesn’t like this.


When the guest returns to her cabin she find everything exactly as it was when she first arrived. She has left no traces. She finds this oddly comforting and no longer feels the need to reach for her phone to look at photographs of loved ones. Even the tiny spot of blood she scratched out of a mosquito bite onto the bedcover has disappeared.


In the morning she is greeted as if for the first time. It seems they wake up every day with no memory. At breakfast she is overwhelmed. She can choose from all possible assemblages of hot and cold breakfast foods and drinks. Decisions are made through a combination of habit, preference and novelty. What is a Russian pancake? (She reaches out to try one.) The guest is unburdened, no longer having to tell a lover how she takes her morning tea, she is free of all – even the most minor of – commitments, promises and laws of self-governance. Finally weightless.


In the afternoon, a lesson:

Write your name.


C’mon, we learned how to do it yesterday.

The guest hates herself for saying ‘we’. The child refuses.

OK. Any word.


Any letter then.

A look of glee travels across the child’s face: she draws a giant X.

Good. How about another?

She draws a giant X.

I mean another letter, a different one.

She draws a giant X.

I like R. It’s fun don’t you think?

She draws a giant X. We switch to numbers. X becomes zero.




Meals. Sunsets. Flaps of toilet roll folded origami style into impossible points. Mojitios. Norwegian bottled water. High calibre ports spawning each other until there is no difference. Yachts with names like Waveduster and The Pulveriser. Everything matches everything, new logics of colour. Minor storms. Barracudas. Linen.




That night CL had laid the guest’s pyjamas out on her bed for her. Washed and ironed. The guest stands at the foot of the bed looking at the flat shapes. The legs are splayed so that the material is flat and smooth against the bed. The long sleeves of the top are neatly pressed down, a little away from the body. The meditative pose of the empty clothes looks too peaceful to disturb. The guest takes off her clothes and climbs into bed beside the empty form, careful so as not to wrinkle or rumple it. She looks at it for a moment then goes to sleep curled in a ball with a pillow between her knees.


Mira Mattar <miramattar AT> <> is
a sometime governess, freelance writer and contributing editor to Mute
and 3:AM. She blogs at