Condition black

Gerald Seymour


She walked briskly in front of him, through the swing glass doors into the lobby, and she led him to the front desk, then paused to allow him to collect his key. The Night Porter, elderly, stained shirt, and the cigarette clinging to the extremes of his lip, leered at the man as he gave up the key for the third-floor room.

There were Americans in the lobby, sitting over maps and guidebooks, discussing the next day's tourism. And the voices of one group of them were loud in their complaint of the filth of the city's streets, even Chicago would not have tolerated such rubbish on the sidewalk, even New York. He saw that two of the men eyed the girl with envy and admiration. He saw that one of the women glowered her disapproval over her reading glasses.

She touched him for the first time, just slipped her hand through his arm, allowed him to walk her to the lift. It was a long time coming. He looked up into her face. The light in the lobby was subdued, and her make-up was skilfully applied. She seemed to him to be flushed with youth, and sinewy. To the stranger in the city, far from home, she was beautiful.

More tourists spilled from the lift and were greeted by those in the lobby with cheers and laughter at their lateness. He liked the way the girl stood her ground and forced them to either side of her. It was only an hour since they had met. His second evening in the city and he had been sitting in the bar opposite the hotel, gazing into his glass when she had come and taken the stool beside him. They had had three drinks; she had told him her charges for an hour or until midnight or until the morning; and he had learned and forgotten her name. Her name was unimportant to him, as unimportant as the false name that he had given to her. In the lift, creaking towards the third floor, the girl slid her arms round his neck and eased her pelvis against his.

He would have run the length of the third-floor corridor f rom the lift to his room, if she had permitted him to, but she pouted a small smile to him and firmly held his arm, and made him walk at the pace dictated by her skirt. At the door of his room he fumbled the key from his pocket and twice failed to make it work before she took the key from him. There was no trembling in her hand. If he had looked then into her face, as the door swung wide, he would have seen the coldness of her blue-grey eyes, and he would have seen the tightness of her lips as if that were their natural repose, as if she were merely going to work.

The man's briefcase was on the hotel room dressing table against the wall opposite the turned-down double bed. A faint anxiety nagged at him. He had learned to be cautious because he had often been briefed in such matters. He was held in trust by his employers and those people demanded his caution in return for his freedom to travel on their business. He thought of it as a small betrayal of their trust to have allowed himself the temptation of a cafe whore. He laid his raincoat over the briefcase and had no reason to believe that the girl was even aware of it.

He paid her.

He shovelled the 100,000 lire notes into her hand. He gave her live notes, and she held the last one up to the ceiling light, then she grimaced, then she tucked the notes into her handbag. He watched as she placed the handbag on a chair beside the bed. He watched as she shrugged out of her hip-length coat. It was four years since the last time he had been with a European girl. The girls where he lived now were either Thai or Filipino, imported to lie on their backs.

The girl slowly and teasingly took the clothes from his body, and alternately from her own. When he stood in his underpants and vest, when she was naked other than her black lace pants and brassiere, she broke away from him. She went to her handbag and took from under the banknotes a contraceptive sachet, and then she switched out the light.

He did not see her face again.

She took him by the hand to the bed.

There was a grey light in the room, filtered through the thin curtains from the street lights below, that played on the ceiling but her face was now close to his and in shadow. The quiet of the room was broken by the pursuit of the cars and buses in the street. For a short time he was aware of the raucous commentary on a televised soccer match from the room next door.

He emptied himself into her, into the contraceptive. He fell away from her. Before he slept he was aware of the caressing movements of her hands on his neck and shoulders. He slept easily, swiftly, because the girl had soothed away the exhaustion of his last journey. In four days he had flown to Paris and then travelled to the plants at Saclay and Fontenay-aux-Roses, and he had then flown to Genoa, where he had had crucial discussions with the director of a factory that specialised in the precision-worked equipment urgently required for his project, and he had flown to Rome. He slept now because his exhaustion was exacerbated by extremes of tension that always gnawed at him when he travelled on missions of secrecy.

He had no awareness of the girl slipping from the bed, dressing fast in the darkness of the bathroom. He slept on as she put the key to the hotel room into her coat pocket.

She closed the door with great gentleness behind her. For a moment she sagged against the wall in the corridor outside. Her own task was completed. The lift ahead of her opened. They were the same group of tourists who had seen her take the man through the lobby, and the same men gave her the glad eye, and the same woman stabbed at her with a glance of pure disgust.

The man dreamed.

Peshawar, under the forbidding weight of the climbing foothills of the Hindu Kush mountains, in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan, where his father was a government administrator, had been his childhood home. He dreamed of cricket at a school presided over by an elderly white-bearded Englishman.

He dreamed of boundaries and rippling applause. He dreamed of the days before he went away to the college in Europe and university in Egypt.

The sun shone in the brilliant day of his dream.

He did not wake as the door of the hotel room opened, nor stir at the sudden flash of light from the corridor, broken by the rapid movement of two men, and then extinguished.

The girl had no place in his dreams. He was dreaming of his father standing by the pavilion steps…

He twisted on the hard mattress as the men crossed the room towards the bed, moving silently on the balls of their feet.

The dreams of childhood were always abbreviated, cut away at moments of ecstasy. He had half woken.

A drab room in a small and drab hotel on a drab street behind the railway station. A pitiful place for a man to die. In the moments before he died, the man reached across the wide space of the bed as if he expected that his arm would come to rest against the bare white shoulder of the girl with the blond hair.

They closed on him fast.

There was a hand across his mouth.

The scream stayed stifled in his throat.

There was a hand pulling the sheet over his body.

His legs thrashed and made a pyramid of the blanket above his knees.

There was a knife-blade on a short arc hard down into the sheet.

A pathetic place for a man to die.

There was the effort grunt from the man who used his strength to drive the knife down through the sheet, through the splintering rib cage. The narrow-bladed knife pierced the heart.

The man died with a chokc in his throat. The sheet over his body soaked up the blood spurt of his last life- spasm as the knife was withdrawn. The man who had won distinction in his degree course at the University of Berne and fulsome praise for his doctorate at Imperial College in London and admiration for his teaching at the University of Cairo's Department of Nuclear Engineering, lay dead.

A gloved hand lifted the man's briefcase from beneath his raincoat.

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