It was my third time in England and the big British Airways jet came in over London and touched down at Heathrow thirty minutes early. As usual, it seemed to take almost as long to taxi and disembark as it had to cross the Atlantic, but finally I made my way with the other passengers along a carpeted corridor with a one way mirror at the end and came out into the baggage area. I had my laptop, as usual, and a bottle of Scotch I’d bought at O’Hare.
I was making my way to the carousel when a hand touched my arm and I turned to see a tall man in a dark suit.
“Mr. Harper?” he asked. “Thomas Harper?”
“Would you come with me please, sir.” There was no question at the end of the sentence, and his hand continued to hold my forearm.
“What’s this about?” I asked.
“No need to worry, sir. If you would accompany me, please.”
I’d been on the ground only a couple of minutes, and already met someone who sounded like Dick van Dyke. Maybe the movies weren’t all wrong after all.
He led me away from the baggage area, opened a door with a swipe card and then along an uncarpeted corridor, and when he opened the next door we were outside again. A limousine waited, it’s back door open and he led me to the car, his hand on my arm once more, as if he thought I might make a break for it.
Me! This never happened to me. I’ve been through more airport security than most people, and even after 9/11, I was always the one they waved through with a nod. They rarely even asked me to remove my shoes any more. Safe face, I guess.
I made a token resistance between the building and the car. “Can you tell me what this is about?”
“I’m afraid I can’t, sir.” He looked at me and surprised me by shrugging. “I’m afraid I don’t know any more than you, Mr. Harper. I was asked to bring you here and put you in the car. That’s all.” He pronounced it as “awl”.
“And if I refuse?”
“I was told that wasn’t an option.” His face, which had softened, hardened up again.
I had not been nervous before, just puzzled. Now my stomach jumped and fluttered. Had they mistaken me for someone?
The hand on my arm was firm. The car idled, pale exhaust rising into the cool morning.
I’m no action man, no fighter, and there was nothing at all I could think to do so I ducked into the car and the man closed the door behind me. At least the locks didn’t suddenly click down, like you’d see in some thriller.
I looked at the back of the head of the driver, surprised, though I don’t know why, that he was sitting on the wrong side of the car.
“Do you have any idea what this is about?” I asked.
He made no reply, just accelerated away and turned onto a perimeter road. I sat, uneasy in the seat, and became away of perfume trapped in the car. It was something familiar, musky with an undertone of spice and I associated it with heat and sunshine, but could not place it any better than that. We travelled fast around the airfield for a mile and pulled up in front of a Jury’s Inn hotel. It wasn’t smart, but I had stayed in worse over the years. Aircrew were coming and going through the doors and it was obviously where they stayed on stop over. The driver came around, opened the door for me.
I stepped out and walked into the hotel, stood for a moment, alone, wondering what to do next. Then the perfume returned, stronger and I turned to one side and saw Desi standing beside a pillar, arms crossed, glaring at me.
I smiled, held out my hand and she ignored it.
“Good to see you again, Desi,” I said.
Her features didn’t soften. “I just want you to know this was against my advice,” she said.
“This whole…” She shook her head, searching for the right words, gave up. “This whole stupid… thing!” She stared hard at me, then turned without another word and strode across the lobby.
Because I didn’t know what else to do I followed. I wasn’t stupid. Surprised, yes, but not stupid. I could guess where she was taking me, and my heart began to pound in my chest.
All the way up in the elevator (although it said Lift above the door as we entered) she stood in one corner, arms still crossed, face still pulled into an angry frown.
The bell pinged, the doors opened and we stepped into a corridor. Desi led me along it to the end, swiped a key card and nodded. She stayed where she was. I pushed the door open and stepped through.
Niki was standing at the window. The room was normal size, maybe sixteen feet long with an en-suite taking up most of one side by the door. The bed was enormous, as if making it bigger implied class.
She stared out through the triple glazing, and beyond I saw planes landing and taking off, unbelievably close, unbelievably silent, except I could feel a faint tremor in the floor each time they powered up.
“Niki,” I said, my voice fluttering.
She still didn’t turn. “Why, Thomas?” she said.
“I thought we had something good together, something real. Why did you just leave?”
“Niki…” I took bursa escort three paces towards her, and hearing me she raised her hand behind her, palm up and stopped me.
“Don’t, Thomas. Just tell me what was so wrong with me, so I know, and then you can leave.”
“Niki,” I said again, my voice breaking. “There is nothing wrong with you. Nothing at all. Not one single tiny little thing. You’re perfect.”
“Ha!” she exclaimed. “So fucking perfect you walk out without saying goodbye. You leave and I never see you again. Thomas, can you even imagine how much pain that gave me?”
“Niki, I’m sorry,” and I started towards her again. Her hand came up higher, stiffer, but this time I ignored it, continued to her and up to her and put one hand on her waist, the other on her left shoulder. Her rigid arm slid over my shoulder, the muscle hard and trembling.
I felt her stiffen, go rigid.
“Dont…” she whispered.
I put my head close to hers. “Niki, I love you. I love you more than anyone I have ever loved in my life.”
She turned her head, just her head, looking at me from the side of her eyes.
“So why did you leave like that, Thomas? Why?” It was the cry of a young girl who has lost her first comfort blanket, a heartbroken cry that knew the world would never be the same again.
“Because it was a dream, Niki. Because when everyone else came in, I realized it was a dream. That was your world, not mine. I couldn’t believe I was a part of that, could be a part of that. D’you think it didn’t hurt me as well? But I thought I was doing what was best, for both of us.”
“But we felt right, Thomas. Me and you, it felt right. Didn’t you feel that as well?”
I pulled her back against me and she came, stiffly. “I felt that,” I said. “But it was a dream, Niki, for me. You are just so beautiful, your world so different from mine. I couldn’t believe it was any more than a fling for you. I didn’t want to hang around until you grew tired of me and broke my heart. I couldn’t stand that, Niki, I couldn’t have lived with that.” I realized I was crying, tears sliding down my cheeks.
“I loved you so much that week,” I continued. “It was the best week of my life, and you the best thing that ever happened to me. But I’m fifty in two weeks, for God’s sake, and you’re half my age, and a thousand, no a million times more attractive. Things like this don’t happen, not to middle aged men from Chicago.”
Her arm, until then still held awkwardly over my shoulder, softened and she moved it around and placed it over mine on her left shoulder.
“Did you not think of me, Thomas?” she asked softly. “Did you not think I felt love as well? I thought you knew I did.”
“I thought…” My voice caught and I stopped, took a breath. “I thought you believed you loved me. But I thought I knew better. Niki… I thought I knew your heart better than you did.” My voice trembled and caught again and I couldn’t continue.
Finally she turned, turned and came inside my arms and I hugged her close and put my cheek against hers. My tears rolled down my face and joined with hers and she gasped against me, taking air in with an effort, sobbing against me.
I held her, smoothing her hair. It had grown out in the three months since we had met, still fine and soft but falling now to below her shoulders.
I felt her slim body shaking against mine and stroked her back.
Her perfume enveloped me, filling my head.
I wanted to kiss her, but didn’t know if she would let me.
I waited while she cried. Sniffed and held back my own tears. Waited again.
Slowly, gradually, she stilled against me. She moved, let a breath out and softened against my body.
I lifted my hand and touched her face and slowly she allowed me to turn it and look at me.
We stood close, our lips almost touching.
“I love you so much, Niki,” I whispered.
“I cannot let you break my heart again, Thomas.”
“I would never do that.”
“You already have,” she said.
I felt tears well again in my eyes.
“I didn’t mean for that to happen, Niki.”
“But it did.”
“Niki, I love you. I want to-” I stopped. Even now I believed she was too out of reach to be real.
She put her hand on my lips.
“Don’t say it if you don’t mean it, Thomas.”
My lips tingled where she touched me. Her scent, her warmth, drawing me in.
I thought about her, about me, and I did want to say it, I did mean it. I looked into her eyes, saw the need in them.
“Sit down,” I said. “I need to tell you something.”
She looked puzzled, but slid out of my arms and sat on the bed, leaning back against the pillows, rucking the covers with her feet when she kicked off her sandals, pulled her knees up and linked her hands around them. She stared at me, waiting. She was as beautiful and elegant as ever, even with her face damp with tears and her eyes pink from crying. She was dressed in a plain cream silk blouse, cream linen pants cut loose.
I sat on the edge of the bed and looked at her and started to speak.
“I bursa escort bayan made a mistake, Niki. I know that now, and I knew it almost immediately then. I sat on the plane leaving Miami and before the seat belt sign went off I knew it was a mistake. But by then I couldn’t turn back. When I landed in Chicago I called the hotel, but you had gone.”
Niki looked at me, making no comment.
“So I waited,” I said. “I went home and thought it over, and then I tried to find you. D’you know how difficult you are to find? You have agencies and managers and protectors, and I can understand why, but it meant I couldn’t reach you. I left messages. I left a hundred messages in the first month.”
“I didn’t get any messages,” she whispered.
“I didn’t know that. I thought you were just ignoring me, and that’s what I thought was happening. Why would I think that someone as special as you would want to hear from me again? I thought we had something special. That week in Miami was different for me, and I thought, I hoped, it was for you as well.”
She gave the slightest nod, barely a movement, but it encouraged me to go on.
“So I stalked you on the web. I searched for your name and found news about you, managed to track where you had been, but never where you were going. I could have flown to Paris, to Moscow, to Bejing but it would be after you left. I knew where you had been, never where you were. And you didn’t reply to my messages.”
“I didn’t know, Thomas.”
“And if you had known?” I asked.
Tears welled heavy in her eyes again. She twisted round, moved down the bed and came to me. Her arms snaked around my shoulders, her head pressed against mine.
“I would have answered them, Thomas. Every one of them. Every single one. I thought you didn’t care! My heart hurt so much I didn’t know if it would ever stop.”
“You could have found me,” I said.
She drew back and looked at me, her hands on my face.
“I didn’t think you wanted me to,” she sobbed.
“Oh Niki, this is so fucked up.”
“No it’s not. We can fix this, Thomas. We can, can’t we?”
She waited. Her hands trembled against my cheeks. Her eyes searched deep into mine.
I could hardly breath, and the thought ran through my mind: Great, now I keel over with a heart attack!
“Do you really mean that Niki?”
She nodded, beautiful, tearful.
“If I didn’t mean it, Thomas, I would not have tracked you down too. I would not have paid men to bring you here. I needed to know, Thomas, I needed to know why you abandoned me!” She started to cry softly again. “Even if the truth hurt, I needed to know why.”
“There was no why,” I said. “Only a foolish old man who should have listened to his own heart and ignored his head. But I need to know if you really mean it, Niki. Because I’m on the edge of committing to something here. And I’ve not done that for a long time. I thought I was never going to do it again. And I don’t think I could bear it if I commit and you… change your mind.”
“Oh Thomas, why would I ever do that?”
“Because you’re young and beautiful, unbelievably beautiful, and I’m middle aged and ordinary.”
“You are beautiful to me, Thomas. More beautiful than anyone ever before.”
I looked down, suddenly unwilling to look into her eyes, to search for the real truth.
“We can fix it, Niki,” I said. “If you want, we can fix it.”
“I want it, Thomas. Oh God, I want it!”
And now, finally, she kissed me. Softly at first, her lips so full and sweet, then becoming hungry and her mouth opened and her tongue came seeking mine.
My head spun, my heart hammered in my chest, and all I could feel was Niki pressed against me. And then someone knocked on the door. We both tried to ignore it but the knocking came again, louder, more urgent.
We drew apart and Niki looked at me. “It’s Desi,” she said. “I’ve got a plane to catch in a couple of minutes.”
“Where will you be?”
“Madrid. Until Saturday.”
Desi knocked again, and I could hear her voice shouting through the door. Something about the plane was not going to wait whoever she was.
“Tell me what you want me to do, Thomas.”
I stared at her, couldn’t think.
“Call me, Niki. Call me this week, when I can think properly.”
She kissed me again. Clung to me a moment then tugged away. “I have to go, Thomas, I’m sorry. I’ll call. I love you…”
Eventually I got up from the bed, washed my face in the bright bathroom, and returned to the revolving doors to find the same car that had brought me an hour ago still waiting. The driver was sitting on the hood smoking a cigarette, and when he saw me he crushed it under his foot and opened the rear door.
“I’ve got some luggage,” I said.
“Taken care of sir. It’s in the boot.”
“Sorry. In the trunk, sir. I picked it up for you, Mr. Harper.”
I nodded, still not fully come round from my session with Niki, and slumped down into the soft leather seats.
We drove out from the airport escort bursa and picked up the highway into London. Over to my right planes continued to stack up and follow each other in, only minutes between each one.
The journey took most of an hour, traffic building as we got closer to the center.
“I’m staying at the Holiday Inn,” I said.
“I think that’s been changed, Mr. Harding,” he said.
“I’ve been instructed to take you to the Park Lane Hotel, sir. I believe your booking has been re-arranged.”
Niki, I thought, and smiled.
I worked. I’m sure it was not the best work I’ve ever done, but I’ve been doing it so long now I can manage on auto pilot through most of it. The company was a large multinational, the contract for a huge amount, and I did try, and as the week went on I was sure I would get better.
In the evening I wandered the streets of London, ducking in and out of narrow streets around Soho, some full of cafes and bars, some sleazy and lined with strip clubs and sex shops.
I kept my cellphone charged and waited for a call. Nothing came that day.
I walked through the park opposite the hotel, moving slowly, watching people jogging, cycling, riding horses.
My cell was in my pocket, and every now and then I took it out, checked for a signal, checked the battery was charged.
I went to bed early, lay under the covers watching the lights filter around the heavy drapes, car headlights reflecting and washing the ceiling.
I was starting to drift, hanging in that place between wake and sleep when my phone sounded and vibrated across the bedside cabinet. I jumped, grabbed it and pressed answer.
I lifted the phone to my ear and listened.
“Thomas.” It was her, her gently accented voice. I pictured a suite in Madrid, Niki sitting there. My Niki.
“I’ve been waiting, Niki,” I said. “I wasn’t sure you would call.”
“I needed to think, Thomas.”
“And have you?”
I waited, could not wait. “And?”
“You hurt me very much.”
“I know. And if I could take that back I would do it, in an instant. I never meant for that to happen.”
“But it did,” she said. “And I have to consider that. I have to consider what it would feel like if that happened again.”
“Niki, it will never happen again. I want to spend the rest of my life with you.”
“You do?” Her voice sounded young, uncertain.
“I do,” I said.
“I’ll call tomorrow,” she said. “Same time?”
“I’ll be waiting.”
She rang off. I looked at the phone for a long time, stroking the plastic case as though that could bring me closer to her, then I put it back on the nighstand and rolled over. Three minutes later the phone buzzed again. I rolled back and picked it up, but it wasn’t a call. I looked at the screen, saw there was a picture message, scrolled through and opened it.
It was Niki, sitting in her room. She must have placed the phone on a chair and used the timer. She was sitting on the edge of the bed, half turned away, completely naked, staring into the camera. Her face was serious, but beautiful.
I stared at the picture, drawing her image in like a thirsty man draws in water. It was Niki. Beautiful, unbelievable Niki.
I searched the web and discovered John Hiatt was playing playing in Hammersmith with the Goners, took the tube and managed to buy a ticket from a tout at four times face value and lost myself in loud rock, my ears ringing as I clattered back to the hotel through the hot underground network. Sitting in the carriage I took my cell out, knowing there was no signal down here, and saw a missed call, number withheld. It must have rung when I was in the theater, the music too loud for me to hear it, not feeling the vibration in my pocket.
I swore softly to myself, tried everything I knew to return the call as I walked back from the tube station to the hotel, but nothing worked.
Sticky from the gig I showered and climbed naked into bed. I poured myself two fingers of the good malt I had brought over, sipped it slowly, savoring the peaty aftertaste.
My phone rang and I picked it up to hear Niki sobbing.
“Hey, hey, what’s wrong.”
“That Desi is a cunt, Thomas. She’s a bitch.”
“What’s the matter?”
“She keeps on and on about you. Keeps saying you would be a big mistake. Says you don’t really love me. You only want my money, want me because I’m rich. Tell me she’s lying, Thomas, tell me!”
“Of course she is, Niki. She’s jealous, she’s scared… she’s probably insecure. She’s known you a long time. You’re close. She doesn’t know what to make of me.”
“I don’t want to hear these things, Thomas, not about you. I know your heart. I know it!”
“Tell me about it, Niki… tell me all about it.”
She talked for twenty minutes, and slowly her sobbing eased and then stopped. Desi did sound as though she was being been pretty harsh, but I could understand why she felt that way, and I tried to calm Niki down, to make her understand that Desi loved her too, she had to believe that.
“She’s not really trying to hurt you,” I said. “She’s just scared.”
“But she is hurting me if she says I cannot be with you, Thomas.”