An exclusive excerpt from Farah Guznavi‘s short story, Saving Grace published in The Best Asian Short Stories- 2020 (Edited by Zafar Anjum), published by Kitaab in 2020.
Saving Grace by Farah Guznavi
It was so much worse than I had expected. And I’m used to expecting the worst because as the unlucky bastard in charge of Housekeeping, I invariably have to mop up the messes created by my incompetent subordinates.
A hotel that charges as much as The Regency does have to provide top-drawer service. So we do whatever it takes to convince our customers that we’re the real deal in terms of luxury lifestyles. After all, as management likes to remind us, the hotel has a reputation to maintain—however painful the maintenance process may be.
I get that. I do. I just hate the fact that I’m always the one that has to pick up the slack. But let’s face it, how can you expect efficiency from a cleaning crew when most of its members come from the dirtiest parts of the world? India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, etc. To me, they’re all the same, these Indians!
Some people might think I’m being racist, but to say that Indians have disgusting hygiene habits is just a statement of fact. I mean, most of them don’t even know how to use toilet paper properly! The Philippines is completely different. That’s why I resent it when people here—the Arabs, in particular—tar all migrant workers with the same brush.
Of course, there are instances when we have only ourselves to blame, hobnobbing too intimately with such people, as Grace is doing these days. I worry about that Saving Grace 201 girl. I can’t help it. She was the first to coax my guarded heart back to life after so many barren years.
Everyone regards me as Benny, a friendly guy from the Philippines, but the truth is I lost the ability to give a damn about anything a long time ago. Life is more comfortable with your feelings safely locked away. Emotions lead to mistakes. And the consequences can be deadly.
I’m aware that my co-workers consider me good looking. My dark eyes, full head of hair, and toned body (I spend a lot of time working out—it helps to keep certain urges at bay) would guarantee me a steady supply of female company if I so desired. But that road leads straight to hell. The Bible is clear on the subject of original sin, and I know from experience that sex outside of marriage usually leads to trouble.
I was desperately lonely when I first arrived in Al Nourain. There weren’t many Filipinos here at that time. It was a Middle Eastern backwater. None of us knew then that it would one day rival Dubai, with its gleaming skyscrapers and the hordes of complacent European tourists frolicking on its beaches. The city-state has benefitted enormously from the energy and foresight of young Sheikh Ahmed. He realised— after the suspiciously early death of his father brought him to power—that a nation without oil would need to find other ways of keeping up with its wealthy neighbours.
I was still young when I arrived here, at the tail end of my teens, and I was miserable to be so far away from my mother. She had always been my rock, providing unflinching support whenever I needed it. Mamma single-handedly raised me and my younger sister, Alice. I don’t like thinking about her, though. Alice, I mean, not my mother. She’s the reason I had to leave Manila. From the time of her birth, baby Alice was the light of my life. She gave me succour and strength. Despite being a skinny nerd, I was her hero. And when I was around her, I truly felt like one. Papi left us shortly after my mother became pregnant with Alice. I was already the target of school bullies by then, considered a sissy and a mamma’s boy. My father, the macho man, despised me for it. And it got a lot worse after he left—mostly because he left, actually.
He was a lazy bastard, anyway. Like so many men in the Philippines, good for nothing. Luckily, our women are strong. Look at my mother. Newly single, she took less than a week off work for Alice’s birth. After that, she resumed her job with a Bangladeshi family, living in their mansion in Das Marinas.
The man, Mr. Rabbi, was a bigshot at the Asian Development Bank. It was laughable how he claimed to be doing development work to help the poor when neither he nor his spoilt wife and fat sons could pour a glass of water without ringing the bell for my mother! The Bangladeshis are such hypocrites.
But at least they aren’t as perverted as some of the others. Al-Nourain is the kind of place that brings out strange things in people. For all the talk of “conservative values,” there is a dark underbelly to cities like this. Forbidden activities aren’t really forbidden, they just take place behind firmly locked doors. How else could they attract so many Western expatriates?