A man sneaks into a seedy hotel room. Moments later, his best friend’s wife joins him. Just as they start to make love, an accident kills her. And now he has to hide the body in order to keep his adulterous affair a secret. That’s the premise of what some say is my masterpiece, What Happened in Room 13, which I made in 2007 under the Maisha Film Lab. It’s an 18-minute thriller with no dialog. Watch it here! Free!
Someone once asked me a question that writers find so ridiculous: “Where did you get that idea?” I equate it to the question, “Where did you get that shirt?” To some readers ideas grow on trees, and all a writer does is climb and harvest a masterpiece.
Some writers do not accept it that they write from experience. They fear the reader will have a low opinion of the work if it’s autobiographical. “Is this a memoir?” They think the reader will ask. Some writers want readers to think they are very “imaginative,” and every creation of theirs was plucked from the blessed darkness of their subconscious. Yet personal life experience influences every writer. I think I’m the kind of writer doomed to come up with only autobiographical pieces. Like What Happened In Room 13.
Of course, I’ve never been in a situation where I have to hide a dead body. But at one point in my life, I worked in a lodge—some call it motel, others guest house, others run-down hotel. In Uganda, they are popularly called “lodges,” and they are famous for promoting adultery. They are not meant for travelers who need a place for the night. They are meant for sex. For adultery. For prostitutes to take their clients. No wonder we have such a high rate of AIDS—these lodges are one of the most profitable businesses in Uganda. You can’t make a loss. You will always be sure of 500% profits, especially if you market it as a place for secret affairs and illicit love. A place where your spouse will never catch you cheating!
And my short stint in this lodge gave me material to create many stories, including What Happened in Room 13. It was an exciting job. I witnessed how adulterers behave, the eccentric extremes they reached to avoid being detected. But it was also the worst workplace on earth. Very disgusting. I at times caught sight of sweating shapeless bodies of stark-naked women immediately after they’ve had sex, and sometimes I had to clean a room with used condoms carelessly discarded under the beds. For many years after I quit this job, I never wished to get married. What I saw killed my belief in love and marriage. I saw every girlfriend whom I came with ending up in a dirty lodge for a quickie.
The lodge was a small bungalow originally meant to be a private residence, in an upcountry town. They turned the living room into a bar. It provided the only entrance and exit to the hotel. Though it was always empty, many clients feared to be seen in it. They preferred to hide in the rooms while waiting for their partners. Those who stayed here wore elaborate disguises.
On my first day in the job, a woman walked in, dressed like a fanatic Muslim; the only visible part of her body were her eyes—anxious eyes. When she spoke she whispered so that I won’t be able to recognize her voice if I heard it again. She kept the veil on her face, even while drinking a soda! She sat quietly in a corner of the empty bar, sipping on a Fanta, waiting for her lover to appear. Later, when I started to write What Happened in Room 13, I modeled the character of the heroine on her. (Of course, I did not write notes the moment I saw her. Rather, about five years later, when I started writing Room 13, I found myself creating a character resembling her.)
Normally, the couples arrived and left separately. If the man used the eastern route, the woman used the western. I rarely saw a couple walk in together. Often, the woman came first and left last. The man finds her waiting, wham-bams, then flees, leaving her behind. Mission accomplished. They spent less than thirty minutes in the lodge—in and out in a flash—though odd couples spent hours. Some spent as little as five minutes locked up in the room, yet they left behind a used condom—and the smell!
If the woman is all veiled up, like the one above, she could wait for her lover in the bar. However, the majority of them came without disguise, and so waited in the secrecy of the rooms. This way, they can be sure only the lodge workers see them. This was before the era of mobile phones, and so the only way these lovers could let their partners know which room they were in was through the lodge staff. Normally, there are no more than two workers in a lodge. A guy like me—who handles the cash, serves the drinks, and cooks the snacks—and the cleaner.
But they feared to give their partner’s name, or even a description. All one would say is, “When a certain man comes, bring him in here.” Though with time I got to know which woman belonged to which man, I sometimes erred and took the wrong man to the wrong woman. Mostly, there might be only one lover waiting in the rooms, and so when a partner comes, it’s easy to match them.
But often, a man would arrive asking if his lover has shown up, and yet there are two women waiting in separate rooms. Now how do you figure out which one he wants, yet they fear to give the names of their secret love? I would do my best to describe the lovers and their clothes (“He is taller than me, with a huge potbelly and no beards. Is he the one?”). These qualities being rather general, on a few occasions I ended up taking the wrong partner to the wrong woman!
This confusion would normally happen at the peak of business hours, between 11AM and 4PM, on weekdays, while on weekends between 9AM and 6PM. It shouldn’t be a surprise that business boomed during the day and was dull in the night. Interestingly, most of them prefer to meet at around three. Even during very hot weather, they prefer three o’clock when the sun is most fierce. I suspected it is because the women, being housewives, can easily sneak out of their homes after lunch, when there is no household work and the children are taking a nap, or out playing, or at school. When it’s easy to cook up an alibi—“I’m going to the market.”
We once had a cleaning maid who was a whore. We called her Asha, though her real name was a mystery, even to herself. Asha would wait until the man has had his time with whichever woman he has brought to the hotel. As is often the case, these women are housewives who are terrified of being found out. They therefore spend very little time in the lodge with their lovers. It’s a very quick in-and-out affair, sometimes lasting less than ten minutes. The men would then be more hungry after the encounter, and then Asha would offer him ultimate satisfaction. She was pretty and looked like a seventeen-year-old, though she was in her thirties.
When Asha knew that the man is loaded, she would often hoodwink his partner, saying, “The man you are looking for hasn’t yet arrived. Please wait in this room.” And then she keeps the man waiting for nearly an hour in another room, then tells him, “Looks like your woman isn’t coming. Can I help?” After the man has paid her, she makes the partners meet, saying, “Eh! So this is the man you wanted to see? I thought it was a different man!”
The women were most anxious to avoid being detected and, like the veiled woman above, would do anything to hide their faces. Once in the lodge, however, they were calm, looking humble, talking little. The men were always restless and panicky, but were more determined and eager to do it than the women. At any slight distraction, like failing to get a room, the woman would abort the mission. The man must therefore ensure nothing happens to change the woman’s mind. The regular and more-experienced man would come hours early to book a room; those who didn’t book early failed to get a room during the rush hour, yet they never gave up.
For example, a man one time came and asked me, “Do you know me?” I knew him. “No,” I replied. If I were to say “yes,” I’d have lost a client. “Give me a room.” But there was no free room. He panicked. “You have to give me a room,” he whispered urgently. But all the rooms were occupied. “I’ve got to get a room!” he insisted. “Any price!” So I suggested the store, and the man paid fifteen thousand shillings for ten minutes in a musty room full of empty crates, broken furniture, junk metal, spiders, cockroaches, and a hundred rats! The lady didn’t mind.
My next post will contain some interesting anecdotes that might have made it to “odd news,” for inside these lodges there’s often so much drama!