by Louise Phillips
(Published by The Irish Times 26th April 2016)
My name is Keeva. I am seven years old. I live in a hotel with my family because we don’t have a proper home. Some people think living in a hotel is good, but it isn’t. Before we came here, we slept in a car for three nights. When it got dark, we were freezing, and Dad said it was an adventure, and made us laugh. He used to laugh a lot, but he doesn’t do that anymore.
A few days ago, teacher asked everyone to draw a picture of their house. I held a chunky blue crayon tight in my hand, and started with the sky. That bit was easy, then I got stuck. I don’t remember our old house. I only remember bits of it, like the washing machine and other stuff we don’t have anymore. My mind went blank, like the telly, when you turn it off with the remote control, and everything is dark and quiet. I looked at my friends drawing, and I wanted to be like them. I wanted to be anyone other than me.
I understand what ‘ashamed’ means. It means not being as good as everybody else, being different, but not in a nice way. I’d like to be ordinary again, instead of being a homeless person.
I told my sister what happened at school. She said I should have drawn a made-up house, because nobody would know it was a lie, but I didn’t want to.
We don’t have a kitchen in our hotel room. In the mornings I eat my cereal in bed. Then I get two buses to school. It’s a long walk too, and sometimes I’m tired even though it’s early. Mam says we live in a dump, but it’s not really a dump, because the rubbish is put in bins.
There are two beds and a cot in the room. Mam and Dad sleep in one, and I sleep with my sister in the other. My baby brother Sean has the cot. He cries a lot, especially at night. Mam says he’s sick because Dad has him stuck in the room all day, but Dad is stuck there too, especially if it’s raining. The room isn’t big. There is a television, a wardrobe and a small fridge in it. The fridge makes a funny sound, and it used to keep me awake, but that’s fine now.
Some people stay in the hotel for a holiday. They have suitcases on wheels. I see them eating food in the restaurant, or watching television on the big screen. We’re not allowed to do that because those things are facilities. There are lots of facilities in the hotel. There is a list on the board in reception: the swimming pool, the sauna and the library. Other things are facilities too, like the magazines and newspapers on the tables, or the brochures in the clear plastic holders at the front door. The toilets are facilities as well, the ones with the brass women and men on the doors.
At the weekends, because there is no school, I don’t have friends to play with. I used to like playing chasing, but we can’t do that in the hotel. At first, we went to a park, especially on the days that the room got all hot and stuffy, but that stopped when Dad stopped laughing.
I don’t tell other people where I live, unless I have to. I think my Nana feels the same way, because in the afternoons, when Mam is working, and Nana picks me up from school, she makes me walk real fast, so nobody sees us.
On Fridays, I stay in her flat because she has a washing machine to wash our clothes. Then afterwards, at hotel room, she piles the clean clothes on the coffee table, even though we don’t drink coffee.
We had to get rid of loads of stuff before we came to the hotel, extra clothes, furniture, our cooker, pots and pans, the toaster and hot water bottles too. There wasn’t any room in the hotel for things like that.
There are big cookers in the hotel, but they are part of the facilities, so we can’t use them. I like my food cold now. Mam says, its months since we’ve had a proper meal. ‘How can you have a proper meal in this dump?’ Dad doesn’t answer. I miss him smiling. I miss Mam smiling too. I hate being sad.
I told Nana about the drawing at school and she didn’t say anything, but squeezed my hand tight.
Yesterday, when we got off the bus, I was bursting to go to the toilet. Nana told me to hold it, but I couldn’t, so we sneaked into reception, instead of going through the door for the homeless people. The toilets with the brass lady on the door are there. I knew we could get into trouble, because the toilets are facilities, but Nana said she’d keep a look out. I washed my hands in all five basins, pressing the pink liquid soap. That made Nana laugh, so I wanted to do it again, but she said there was no point in pushing our luck.
In the corridor, there was a big wooden frame with lots of words on a piece of paper. I wasn’t sure if it was a facility or not, so I asked Nana.
‘I suppose it is,’ she said.
‘Because it’s belongs to the hotel, and it’s for the guests.’
‘What does it say?’
‘It’s the proclamation.’
‘It doesn’t matter.’
‘What’s a proc-la-mate-ion, Nana?’
‘I told you, it’s not important.’
But it must have been because she did that strange thing with her face, when the lines on her forehead get deeper.
A woman with a baby and a little girl passed us by. They were going to the toilets too. They looked like they were part of the ‘everybody else’, the people who pay to stay in the hotel. Nana pretended we were like them, and that we weren’t in a hurry to get back to our room.
‘Read it, Nana.’
‘It’s very long.’
‘Read it fast then,’ and I squeezed her hand the way she sometimes squeezes mine.
It sounded like she was singing, the words tumbling out so quickly, but near the end, her voice slowed down. I saw a big fat tear run down her cheek before she wiped it away. Mam cries all the time, but Nana doesn’t, so that got me worried.
‘What’s wrong, Nana?’
And, I knew she was lying.
‘Read that bit again, Nana?’
I was happy her voice wasn’t cross.
She read the bit about a thing called a republic and something about happiness. Then she got to the bit about cherishing children equally, and I thought she would cry again.
‘What’s a re-pub-lic, Nana?’
‘It’s a place without a King or Queen.’
‘What does cherishing the children mean?’
‘It means making sure they’re okay, cared for, and not left behind.’
‘Why, where does the proc-la-mate-ion want to take them?’
‘It’s not a place, honey. It’s a way of life.’
‘Nana, why did you cry?’
‘You did. I saw it.’
Then the woman with the little girl and the baby came out of the toilets. The baby looked like Sean. The mother smiled at Nana, and she pulled me close. After they disappeared, we started walking again.
‘Where are we going, Nana?’
‘We’re going to your room.’
‘Will Dad and Simon be there?’
‘Where else would they be?’
‘Will we ever live in a house again, Nana?’
‘I hope so.’
‘I hope so too, because then you, and Mam and Dad, won’t be sad anymore.’
Her grip got tighter, so I kept on talking.
‘And I can draw the house, and Mam and Dad and everything else will be like it used to be.’
‘That would be lovely, sweetheart.’
‘The pro-clam-ate-ion people would like that too, wouldn’t they?’
‘I imagine they would.’