I’m standing on a narrow ledge framed between two reproduction sash windows on the 11th floor of a vintage hotel in a well-known European city. I’m wearing no trousers but am wearing rainbow-patterned boxers, socks, highly polished brown brogues, an open-necked shirt in cornflower blue, slightly torn at the collar, and a tasteful tweed jacket.
Below a group of rubber-neckers has gathered. A few are egging me on, presumably to revel in the sight of me mashed into the cobbles. Some may wonder why I am dressed in such a bizarre fashion, but still they gorp.
The police have just arrived and speak to me through loudhailers in a language native to the onlookers but foreign to me. In their ignorance, they probably assume I am ignoring them. In truth, I am clinging on tightly and making sure my feet don’t slip from the narrow mossy ledge. Doubtless a cohort of the fittest officers are bounding up the stairs at this very second to prevent a regrettable death joining their statistics.
And it certainly looks as if I’m here to top myself? Why else would I take an evening constitutional on a dangerous balcony in a light drizzle, and not attempt to extricate myself by the shortest route? Suicide is not my motive. If it were I’d probably have gone headlong over the parapet, or more likely have downed a bottle of pills to put me into a drug-induced coma. Who would choose to stand a whisker away from a premature demise?
As with all strange situations there is a back-story, many of with are fanciful and embroidered to make the protagonist look more honourable and heroic. I can’t tell the story without looking utterly wretched, but you will have to judge for yourself.
So what possessed me to stand so close to the edge of oblivion? For that I need to step back just a few short months. It was the pursuit of a woman and my ideals that got me into hot water. I flew into the airport serving this strange city filled with hope, dressed to impress and looking forward to meeting a woman, no a lady I had met online. There is a distinction and she erred decidedly towards the genteel and sophisticated.
My attention was captured on a dating site by a mature lady who retained the lingering beauty of youth, and then by an unusually literate biography. I wrote back and was astonished to receive a composed letter more befitting of perfumed stationary than messages on screen flitting across the ether.
I was enchanted, a state I could not hide from my response nor any of the dozen that followed. She seemed genuinely interested in me, saw past the initial fumbling, stumbling attempts at cool. The conversation rapidly evolved into matters of mutual interest.
She was a few months younger than me, trained as an opera singer but had in recent years lectured in linguistics at the city university. Her studies helped her perfect her spoken English during courses at Durham and Oxford. She enjoyed a cultural life, taking in opera, dance, music and film. She read voraciously in several languages. She was divorced from an older, distant husband, a fellow academic; they had no children. She admitted to carrying a few extra pounds, but was otherwise in excellent shape. Her vanity came through dying her hair raven black and dressing in elegant clothes that set her apart. She was a woman of no little refinement. Unusually, this checked out via Google: she had indeed once been a diva and she did work at the university.
But it was our shared romantic ideals that won me over. There was within her an earthy spirituality with which I could identify. She cared about humankind and worried about morality and ethics in society. She loved good conversation and enjoyed a laugh. Who would not be flattered by such attention? It seemed that I had found a potential soulmate, someone with whom I could easily share the rest of my life.
Within a few weeks a possible meeting was mooted, though her commitments prevented her travelling. I had time at my disposal so I suggested it: why didn’t I visit her city? She seemed surprised but was won round over a few drinks via Skype.
With a touch of modesty she suggested I book myself into a hotel until we had become acquainted. Caution is always wise when meeting someone for the first time, so a first meeting in the public domain seemed sensible on both sides.
There is a keen expectation of instant gratification when meeting people online, but she preferred to take things slowly. I liked that and the hints that she was a touch submissive in the bedroom. The prospect of taking charge and pleasuring her gave rise to wonderful fantasies, but I was happy with the prospect of waiting.
As my mother used to say, the best things come to he who waits. If we were talking potentially about a lifetime together then what would two or three meetings matter? I joked that she didn’t know whether I was an axe murderer. She laughed, a shrill and tinkly laugh that charmed me to the core.
So it was in the spirit of excitement that I flew to her city, having arranged to meet her at a bar in the main square in early evening. I had time to check into my hotel, take a shower and change. She enjoyed the occasional vodka but promised to let me choose a fine burgundy to fuel our initial encounter. It promised to render other dates as shallow, pointless affairs.
I say “affairs” but the point was to launch a three-dimensional relationship between equals, a meeting of like minds. But pending the magic spark of desire, it could emerge as friendship, a brief fling or something more profound – you could never guarantee which. I have learned to live with disappointments but never give up. Rarely had I felt so positive.
But even if things went beyond our wildest imagination it would not be easy: she had her life here, I had mine. I don’t speak her language, though I’d try to learn. Maybe we would visit each other, allow romance to blossom and see where it took us? That’s getting ahead of myself, so I scaled down ambitions to focus on a glorious evening with delightful company.
It occurred to me that I might be the one being duped. You hear stories of false identities to hook the unwary, take them for thousands then melt into the hinterland. This lady seemed so genuine that I had built an unrealistic level of trust. Trust is vital but so easy shattered, though here it overcame my inbuilt scepticism. If she was a fraud she was a damn good fraud. She had not mentioned money once, and if she did then I would exit rapidly.
Precautions seemed sensible so I told my daughter and gave her contact details. As with all grown-up children, she chided me for being irresponsible, while I reminded her of the youth anthem: YOLO – You Only Live Once! Take calculated risks and live a little! Being a respectable professional gentleman, I’m not in the habit of adventuring, but the adrenalin was flowing. For the first time in ages I truly felt thrilled.
So I got myself ready and was at the appointed place early, drinking a small brandy for Dutch courage and reading the English version of the menu.
The first sign something was not quite right came when the appointed hour arrived, but no sophisticated lady hove into view. I glanced at my watch but she was nowhere in evidence; maybe just a female trait to keep the man waiting, though after 20 minutes I began to panic. I asked the waiter if a lady matching her description had been here but he shook his head.
I was in two minds about leaving when she arrived, breathless and anxious. It took a few seconds to clock me, but then she made a beeline for me. She was attired in a patterned blue silk dress and looked as glamorous as I had hoped – perhaps more heavily made up, possibly heavier and more nervous, but otherwise perfect.
She greeted me with the same charming smile. We embraced, her sizeable bosom folding against my chest. I took in a nostril full of heady perfume and skin smelling of rose-scented soap. She kissed me softly on the lips, then sat, my hands in hers, trembling.
“Oh Henry, I am so so pleased to meet you….”
I’m not good at dealing with tears. I launched into my own nervous monologue to cover my embarrassment. I hate my tendency to gush when nervous but I could do to stop the flow of inane drivel.
“Darling, thank you for coming. I was so worried that you wouldn’t come or changed your mind. You can’t imagine how much this means to me. It feels special, the beginning of something special, you know what I mean….”
She put her finger to her mouth. I faltered and stopped. “It’s OK honey. Just be calm. We have fun evening and we tell each other more, yes?”
Strangely, in person her English seemed more broken. I’ve often found that being face-to-face makes an incredible difference in personal relations. The spark that seems so obvious when communicating from afar via a digital link can vanish in a trice. Physically, it’s eye contact, vocal inflections, body language, the shiver of electricity as skin brushes against skin, a waft of pheromones in the air. Something makes a difference, to be sure.
I looked at this woman, purring at me from across the table, her high-pitched voice imbued with a soft accent, and wondered what exactly it was that had attracted me so deeply that I came running to meet her? And indeed whether she could be “the one” that stays, the person whose faults I could overlook and with whom I could find that elusive quality “true love,” that to which we all aspire.
The difference was the hope and promise she represented, that maybe there was a woman who would not leave me feeling disappointed? This encounter could be my future, and while I was not judging her I was sizing up the possibilities.
As we began to talk we both relaxed, and it felt like a chance encounter. She felt like a very different person, albeit one with very similar characteristics to a woman I had known.
At one point she caught me looking at her sizeable cleavage and laughed. In my embarrassment I nearly knocked my drink over but she was genuinely amused, perhaps slightly flattered, glad to know she pushed my buttons.
Clearly my worry was mutual; she had no way of knowing whether I was a rapist or crook. After the opening exchanges she seemed at ease. Her manner was quite open, geared entirely to me. The conversation flowed. It went from families and jobs to music and theatre, to travel and all the little anecdotes one stores for just this sort of occasion.
As we relaxed and the wine flowed, the volume of laughter rose and I realised I was captivated. If she was not equally captivated, she was acting worthy of an Olivier. I felt flattered and the sole focus of her formidable attention. She didn’t glance anxiously over her shoulder as if keen for the encounter to end in a hurry.
As dinner progressed I wondered what would happen next. Should I invite her to my hotel for a nightcap, and if so then just to the bar or to my room? How did you casually drop the idea in conversation? Were her expectations to be wooed in traditionally? As it happens she put me on the spot after dessert.
“So, Henry, are you glad you came to my beautiful city?”
“It is very beautiful, and so are you.” A corny line but she took it in good grace.
“I live a little way out, it is a journey by tram. My apartment is small and crammed with books. It would be much better for you to take me back to your room. Is that OK?”
The last three words were superfluous. She smiled as I spluttered over my wine, but then it occurred to me that after the flustered entrance everything she did or said was carefully calculated for its impact. She continued as if nothing had happened.
“You see in my country we are very direct. We don’t ‘beat about the bush’ as you say. If we want something, we ask for it. Does that make sense?”
I smiled back and imagined myself looking the spit image of Mr Bean, “Yes, it makes sense. I mean I understand…”
“I had to be sure you are a good man, and since you are I thought you might want to make love,” she continued. “In my country we make love with passion. I have never made love with an Englishman. Do you like passion?”
It sounded like an offer of water to a man fresh from the Sahara: “Yes, I – we – I like – love passion.”
For a woman who had played coy during early courtship she continued unabashed, looking me squarely in the eyes: “To me passion is everything. I want a man who makes me feel… whole. Have you ever satisfied a woman so she feels whole?”
Not many times in life have I been stunned into silence but this was nearly one. Thinking back to my three failed marriages and relationships with demanding women who found me wanting I struggled to remember any partner mentioning that I made her feel ‘whole.’ Don Juan I am not though I try hard. Too hard?
An inspiration! “I think choirs sang Hallelujah…”
She giggled like a teenager. A good answer! She drew her chair closer and squeezed my outstretched hand. I sipped my coffee and hoped that my nerves would hold long enough to satisfy this woman. It seemed I had to provide the full orchestra and not just a string quartet, so better to be tuned ready.
“Another brandy,” I called to the waiter, “…and make that two please. And the bill please.”
Twenty minutes later we strolled hand-in-hand the short distance back across the square towards my hotel, one of the oldest and grandest in the city, chosen to impress. A tall and imposing building, it nods in the direction of the Baroque cathedral across the square. Built as a mansion for a wealthy merchant, it was extended over time and converted to a hotel in the 20s. It survived bombing raids and was refurbished with all mod cons in the 60s, 90s and in 2010, restoring the period features to their original splendour. It looked the part for such a momentous occasion.
Still I worried. Had we got wires crossed or was she coming on to me big time? Was she expecting a night of sex? Would I spend the night on the sofa? Maybe she was just a flirt?
Why it is so difficult to interpret women? My recent ex-wife claimed I had no emotional intelligence, though if that were true every man I know would be the same. It’s not for want of listening or empathising, but men simply can’t read between the lines. Maybe I should learn crystal ball reading?
Where there was a risk of blowing my chances, I had to be doubly careful. It was not clear whether she was playing a game, and if so whether I was swallowing the bait like a greedy trout. Rather than a hooked fish I saw myself more like an eager puppy dog, willing to please but having no idea how.
Light rain fell as we approached the grand entrance to the hotel. Lacking an umbrella we jogged the last few metres and returned the doorman’s “good evening.”
The high lobby, notable for its fine mahogany panelling and burgundy armchairs, is lit by several imposing ancient chandeliers made from beautifully carved crystal. As we paced the elegant marble floor towards the cunningly disguised old-time lifts with hidden modern motors, I felt like a duke with the duchess on my arm.
The lift to the 11th floor was swift and silent. We exchanged a nervous grin as the lift commenced its ascent. I squeezed her hand and she reciprocated in kind with a coy, mischievous look on her face, as if to say, “you just wait til I get you alone!”
The doors pinged open, I escorted her out on to the soft-carpeted landing and onwards towards my comfortable room overlooking the square. Not the luxury suite but neither the smallest broom cupboard – quite respectable for inviting in company, so I thought. My card clicked in the reader and the door swung open. I slotted the key into its holder and the lights flicked on. Graciously, I ushered her in through the door with a genteel “ma’am”, to which she curtseyed. I closed the door behind me and there it was, just us.
She dropped her handbag on the bed and turned back to me. I caught her neatly around the waist and held her close. As my eyes closed I moved in to place the first kiss of many on her lips when she stopped me. I drew my head back and looked at her. She returned my gaze for a moment, then turned away and sat on the bed.
“There’s something I need to tell you, darling,” she began. “It’s just that… there’s something you don’t know about me.”
My heart sank. What could be coming next? Was she a man in drag or a psychopath planning to bleed me to death in the bath? I knew it was too good to be true!
“Go on…” I could hear myself say.
“Well, it’s just that I have an illness….”
Lump in throat. “What illness?”
“A slightly infectious illness. That’s how you say it?”
“Contagious… Oh my god, you’re not… HIV?”
How would I possibly admit the shame to my respectable family? But it was not just HIV that scared the life out of me. She wasn’t to know it but contact with any illness has always turned me into an arch lily-livered coward – mmy spine was turning to custard as we spoke.
She repeated her shrill laugh, “Oh no no no….”
The laugh was met by my silence before I could muster more words. “What then?”
“Is nothing to worry about. Quite safe to kiss me…”
She moved rapidly towards me. I backed away but she had cornered my retreat towards the door. My only way to go was deeper into the room, past the TV and towards the minibar. Seeing me move away a look of hurt and astonishment came over her face.
“Don’t you love me any more? I have herpes, you use rubber johnny, quite safe…”
She reached out but I backed away further. Her hand caught my shirt collar, which ripped as I jerked backwards. It didn’t matter to me whether it was herpes or the common cold, I was having none of it.
But rejection and humiliation was clearly one step further than this previously dignified lady was prepared to go. “Come here!” she screamed, and with a lunge across the corner of the bed grabbed at my immaculate beige chinos. The braces pinged off under the force of a massive jolt downwards. I shrieked in alarm but the trousers were heading downwards over my undergarments faster than I could resurrect them.
“I am a good girl! Was husband who gave me horrible illness. No cure and not my fault!” she screamed pitifully, pulling hard to bring the crushed fabric over my knees.
It was evident that she was much stronger than me, for the trousers were around my ankles and I felt hemmed in. There was only one thing for it: I yanked one leg hard upwards just as she pulled the opposite trouser leg downwards over my shoe. She flew backwards on the floor, my trousers in her hands, and I recoiled against the deep window sill.
As she pulled herself up to her feet, one further hope of escape remained: the sash window. I had opened it earlier to allow in a gentle breeze; now it beckoned. With a burst of strength, I pulled the window up and stepped out on to the ledge before she could reach me.
This might seem a foolish action when reason would suggest sitting and talking through my concerns, but reason had deserted me. My head knew that she was right. With a few simple precautions there was no danger of infection, but my head had lost control. She was like a wounded bull and I remained the pathetic excuse of a man fearful of emasculation and standing on the window ledge.
She stopped and looked through the open window. I shuffled a few paces to the left, all the better to be out of harm’s way. She wept gently.
“I only want to love you, not to hurt you,” she sobbed, “this is painful that you run away from me. I….love you Henry.”
If I could have been split in twain, one half would have cuddled her, if only to demonstrate that I have human feeling. But I could not move a muscle.
“Thank you, that’s a lovely thing to say. But if it’s OK with you I’ll just stand here for a while.”
“Please come back here and love me Henry!” she wailed. She kept on yelling at me but my mind tuned out her words. I knew she was distressed and I felt distressed too, but I had to focus on my own predicament first.
Down below in the square a few passers-by were starting to take notice of a soap opera near the top of the hotel. Silhouetted against the room lights, an animated and emotional woman called out; lurking in the shadows between windows, apparently contemplating a leap of doom, was a man without trousers. They called their friends and took pictures on their mobiles, this being the best free entertainment in town.
Then someone called the police who arrived in cars, lights flashing and sirens howling. As they talked from below in a language I did not understand, two facts occurred to me: the ledge was slippery and if I was sufficiently scared to take flight out of the window to escape a woman infected with herpes, I was even more scared at the prospect of moving back. The fight had plain gone out of me.
Adrenalin can see us achieve many things we thought ourselves incapable of doing, but when the effects wear off we freeze. I could only clutch at the damp stone. To my right she begged me to return but I could not see her sad, pleading face.
At some point I’m sure I saw uniformed officers trying to coax me back, but my muscles seemed locked in position. A grey man in a grey suit appeared at a different window to talk to me in English, though I could not hear his words.
Somewhere down below a fire engine appeared, equipped with a hydraulic cherry picker. Swaying gently in the breeze, the picker rose at funereal speed and inched up and round until the firefighter was two metres away from me, separated only by air. A platform extended forwards and the gate on the dolly unlocked. The metal basket came forwards until the platform butted on to my ledge. I fell forwards into the arms of the awaiting firefighter, who slammed the gates shut so the recovery operation could complete.
Something possessed me to turn around. She was still there in the window, now leaning forward. Her pleading face was etched against the darkness beyond, eyes red and bloodshot, her mouth wide open as she screamed to me. I mouthed “Sorry!” but it made no difference. She toppled forwards from the window and out of my sight.