The Seventh Floor


He hadn’t been there the second time either, the poet. They’d come earlier, at nine thirty, on their way back from dinner at the restaurant across the road. She’d felt like a cigarette outside – it was a non-smoking hotel – and he’d gone to check the bar, had walked through the low tables and the armchairs, the poet clearly not there, then onto the terrace, and from there had looked across to where she stood by the main entrance, smoking and thinking and staring out onto the night – a moment of quiet grace and secret pleasure for him, to step away and see her from this slight distance. Within a few minutes she had turned, seen him watching, and smiled, and he had clambered through a gap in the railing, pushed through the shrubbery and walked over. No, the poet wasn’t there, but he hadn’t been sure, anyway – it had been so noisy at the reception – whether he’d said nine or ten. Let’s go back to the room, have a glass of wine on the balcony, and come back down in half an hour if we still feel like it. The poet is gregarious, he reminded her, you know him; he’s probably got into some rambling conversation over dinner and forgotten the arrangement entirely.

And they had – gone up to the room, had a glass of wine on the balcony, come back down at ten, found nobody there, and gone back to the lift to go up to the room again. And beside the lift, having already pressed the button, waiting, was a woman, smiling at them warmly as they approached, holding the lift door open for them as they entered – smiling so warmly, indeed, that he wondered if she were someone who knew them, someone he should perhaps recognise, but no, he’d decided quickly, it was just friendliness. A pleasant woman, in her mid- or late forties, ten years older than his wife, perhaps, and ten or so younger than him. Attractive, with a nice mouth, an aura of summer grass. And something had happened, between the ground and the seventh floor. An intimate gesture, it must have been. Not that he had seen it, just known, somehow, that it had happened. Not even voluntary, most likely, perhaps not even something one could be conscious of. And there had been no time to think, no time to stop what he’d found himself doing, to question the propriety of it, the sanity. A dilemma. He’d had no right to speak and no right not to. Sometimes a thought comes to mind and there is nothing else one can do but to act upon it.

‘Excuse me!’ he’d said, as she’d left – leaning out of the lift, holding the door open himself now. ‘We’ve just decided to go back down, for a nightcap. Would you like to join us?’ And, just as spontaneously – as if the gesture, if that is what it had been (but whose had it been?) had already made sense of things, even before the idea had arrived – she had accepted.

They had ordered a bottle, a famous, elegant white wine from the Cape – he was quietly celebrating, he’d explained, telling her of the award he was about to receive – and then, after just the one glass, he’d excused himself, said that he was feeling more tired than he thought, and needed his rest, and, leaving them there, insisting that they stay, had gone up again to the eleventh floor.

It hadn’t taken him long to go to sleep. The double-glazed windows opened in the European way, inward from the top, and there had been a breeze, cooling and soporific after the heat of the day, so that he’d not pulled the heavy drapes, but let instead the thinner, transparent curtains catch the soft light of the moon and the distant streetlamps. He had gone over the lines of an old song – he could never tell when it would come back to him – again and again, trying to get them right. Somewhere between the third and the fifth verses, at the point he’d stumbled upon, over and over, for so much of his life now, he fell asleep, and couldn’t have said how much later it was – but there was no sound of traffic, and the room had a long-after-midnight cool – that he half-woke to see her undressing with the billowing curtain about her, then felt her climb in, naked, and put her arm around him.

In the morning, as they’d showered and dressed, they’d said nothing. There was no need. Half-way down on their way to a late breakfast, however, with no one else in the lift, she’d suddenly turned and kissed him, that was all, lightly and gently on the lips, and he’d asked, at last, how it was. ‘Nice,’ she’d said. ‘It was nice,’ smiling softly. ‘She had a nice mouth.’