The strident telephone bell exploded into his sleep. Broke into his dream., where it was an alarm on a ship. And he staggered out of his bed into the corridor. Which became the half-remembered armoured claustrophobic corridor of a military ship. Which pitched and tipped as the ship, something like a destroyer to be moving like this … his waking mind was trying to make the unconscious inhabitable. And the destroyer was beginning the nautical equivalent of a racing hand-brake turn and his stomach was rising towards his throat. So he grabbed the big circular handle that, when turned would water-tight the rooms beyond, as he gazed into the …
…. control room of a Russian submarine, with transparent battle-stage screens and computers and the iconic periscope mount.
The telephone rang again. A jarring old-fashioned Rrrrring- Rrrring of bells. Now he was awake.
Who could be ringing at this time of the morning? His mother? Presumed somewhere on the way to Australia to stay with friends? The plane ? Oh God, please let everything be OK … the silent unformed prayer. One of his daughters?
Oh God …
“Good morning sir, this is Chris from …”
Highly accented voice. Cheerful, but somebody called Chris could not have sounded less like somebody called Chris if you had given them two sacks of diamonds and a winning Lotto ticket to try hard not to sound like Chris.
His mind now was working in different directions. Part of it relieved that the call was not from his family; part of it angry that he was being disturbed from a good sleep – and one he really, really needed by some idiot cold-calling. Part of him remembering another glorious time when an alarm bell had burst into his dreams. Dreams that were not entirely dreams.
Between lucrative jobs. Away from the wife he loved and the six-month old child that had turned their lives into a wonderful new phase he was loitering on the Bergen harbour front. Interview completed, nothing particular to do, nowhere to be for an afternoon.
He felt the eyes on him. Looked around the ever-shifting busker’s audience. Was immediately both captured and intrigued by the face of a young woman somewhere vaguely opposite him. Something animal inside said it was her eyes – above fine young Jenny Agutter cheekbones – that had been on him. Then she was gone. He moved towards where she had been standing. He knew why but could never have explained it with human words.
“Me and you,” the voice was crystal. Scandinavian accented. Of course, this was Norway right? Then “me and Booby McGee. The song am I right?”
Ah yes, he thought, through the warm honey that seemed to have filled his brain. The song. The busker. So they had stood together, he flexing at the knees, left and right, she more actively dancing, from the slim waist up. Blonde hair waterfalling both ways. He caught a whiff of perfume, perhaps when she leaned against him, smiling at the child who took coins from the hat and at the busker’s brilliant response.
From there a casual coffee. A walk to the zoo and laughter at the feeding of the penguins. She was from Oslo she told him. He said he was from Wallsend. She knew the place a little. Was an archaeological student and had been on a dig there. The romans, the wall …
An evening in a low-lit bar; a meal.
She tried teaching him some Swedish.
“You have blue eyes.”
“ I love you.”
“I don’t love you.”
All the words she said he would ever need in Sweden. He’d smiled at the thought and was on the outside of enough alcohol to try the phrases out. Clumsily he felt sure. But she was smiling: a wide open-eyed beautiful smile. And she leant across the narrow table and kissed him. Gently at first, exploring. But then harder.
And, next thing he knew they were collecting the key to his room from the reception desk at the hotel. A big log fire warmed the lobby and light rain was chasing itself across the big water-view windows as they sat close together, drinking Scotch from the bar and coffee from the twenty four hour self-serve coffee station.
It was marvellous. No guilt. No hurry. Just understanding and slowly unfolding passion. The wide wooden steps of the stairs seemed to push them closer and they were holding hands as the door tipped slowly open. They took it slowly, gently undressing each other. Long-held looks through the eyes each into the soul of the other.
“Your eyes are blue,” she said, in Swedish. He knew it for what it meant and the answer was so obvious.
“I love …” he started, but her long fingers were on his lips. Then her own lips and he reached down.
Now there was urgency; and he had the impression that he was following her. He had no problem with that. This was bliss. Her breath soft around his face. Then racing. A small cry. He could hear her heart beating. Feel it as they joined.
They made it to the bed after the first joyful release. Lay, heads on elbows, facing each other, tracing patters on each other’s faces, then shoulders, then the long shuddering breath broke from her. He thought he caught the reflection of a tear in the corner of her eye. He could have been mistaken. His mind, such control as he had of it was elsewhere. Meeting her needs. Who was he fooling now,he wondered. For he didn’t live in Wallsend. And he still loved his wife, his daughter and all they had created. But this was something beautifully other. Living a fantasy. Really. Her tight, pale body and his in unison. While the full moon swung over and down into the calm seas beyond the glass. And they tumbled towards each other. Into one another, one around the other. And the room spun and the stars crashed and flared.
And eventually they slept, her head on his left arm. Until, despite everything he wished, pins and needles danced in his only-human circulation and he eased his arm out. Then slept again to dream. The busker was in the dream and her eyes. And the tide rising and the seals in the aquarium tank and the queue for the 3-D cinema. Then the dream became wavy and there was a bell. Somebody was at the door of the cinema, ringing the door-bell. No, it was the telephone … or.
He was awake. She was pushing at his shoulder, her eyes wide. Scared.
Now he understood. Somebody was ringing the doorbell on the …
No, hotel rooms don’t have door bells. More awake now.
“… alarm,” her accent was thick with recent sleep. Her breath smelled intoxicatingly sweet. He could only think of taking her again and was glad the bell was …
“fire alarm! Fire!” she was punching his shoulder. Then rolling out of bed and pulling on delightfully small black knickers and tight jeans.
He rolled off the bed. Ran to the door. Put his ear to the wood. The sound of people outside. Voices. Footsteps. He felt the door with the back of his hand, feeling foolish even as he did it. If there were people outside there was clearly no fire in the corridor. He came back. Dressing quickly, gallantly waving her out through the door.
He passed a pair of firefighters on the stairs. Them, business-like going up. Him, stumbling a little on his way down. The reception was crowded. He couldn’t see her. Her eyes … still in his mind. Her silhouette. There was a young man at the reception desk, shaking his head as people sought information.
“False alarm,” he was telling everyone who asked, “false alarm.”
Relief. People smiling tiredly at each other. Carrying half asleep children back up the wide stairs. He knew then that he would not see her again. His heart dropped. He was stricken. But not for long. As it was, things had worked their own fairy dust kind of magic. And it hadn’t gone on too long. What had she said her name was? He struggled to remember. Still, despite the symmetry of the situation hoping he might be wrong. That she might be here still.
He took a coffee from the machine. Walked outside to where two fire appliances were standing, seeming to tick smugly to themselves. He nodded to a firefighter who was slipping the braces of his yellow breathing apparatus harness over his tee shirted shoulders.
“False alarm …” the fireman said to him.
“Go back inside; some more sleep perhaps …”
But he sat on a bollard for another fifteen minutes or so. Watching waves curl and lick at the hull of a deep sea salvage boat. Finished the coffee before slipping into the hotel and up the stairs. The door was still open.
His heart leaped again.
Perhaps she …
There was a piece of paper on the bed where she had slept. Folded up.
“Sorry,” he read the words.
“I thought I needed the money.
But then I feel in love.
Have a good life.”
Then some Swedish writing, and though he had never seen it written down he just knew it said
“I love you” in her own native tongue.
He didn’t check his wallet or the room safe until he checked out of the hotel on his way to the compact airport the next morning.
There was nothing missing.
In the departures terminal he tossed the screwed up piece of paper into the bin, although he had thought of keeping it.
Back in the present he was suddenly aware that his wife and sixteen year old daughter were looking at him from the top of the stairs. And the man who said his name was Chris was still talking.
“Not interested, thanks,” he quietly said and put the ‘phone down, shaking his head at them.
“Nothing important,” he whispered in reply to their questioning looks.
“Some more sleep perhaps?”