I went to the Palladium alone that night. We’d had another one of those pointless petty arguments, the sort that culminated in hot words and the hurling of household objet d’art by my fiancé Clara. Passionate sort of woman, Clara. To tell the truth, I was desperate to get out of the relationship but lacked the courage to end it. Never been much good at partings, I’m afraid. Or beginnings, for that matter. And the middle bits seldom went well, either, when I think about it.
I couldn’t bear to waste those Palladium tickets entirely so I went along and spent an awkward evening on my own, glumly watching Rumanian plate spinners, a ventriloquist who was more wooden-faced than his dummy and an American diva who closed the show with a medley of her better known songs, most of which were beyond the sad vestige of her vocal range. After I left the theatre a heavy rain set in and people scattered up and down Argyll Street seeking shelter under shop awnings. There was a little tobacconist I knew from where I bought my Turkish premium blend cigarettes and I huddled in its doorstep, fervently wishing I’d stayed home.
I had just determined to make a run for it and seek the solace of a brandy and soda at the Argyll Arms across the road when a bus loomed out of the sheets of rain and pulled over not far from where I was. One of the descending passengers immediately caught my eye. She looked exactly as if she had stepped from the pages of an Evelyn Waugh novel only a little soggy and bedraggled thanks to the downpour. If I tell you that upon my first glimpse of this extraordinary creature I bit my knuckle and exclaimed ‘Jeepers, creepers’, you may better understand the impact she made upon me – roughly about the size of that crater they found in Siberia several years ago.
Look, I don’t mean to say she was astonishingly beautiful or anything like it; her nose was small and upturned – I prefer the aquiline aristocrat look – her mouth a little too big for perfection, everything a little skewed, you might say, and yet it all added up to an arresting attractiveness that drew my admiration. There was just something radiant about her, a vitality that seemed to defy the rain and puddles and gloomy night. She stood there indecisively for a few moments, clearly trying to make her mind up about something. At one point her eyes met mine – I was staring at her with my lower jaw sagging some way towards the pavement – but she quickly averted her gaze.
A car pulled up at the bus stop, one of those wildly popular little Austin Sevens. The sort of vehicle you wouldn’t look at twice; but she did, staring so that you could see the whites of her lovely eyes. Then she did something rather extraordinary. She ran straight at the tobacconist’s shop doorway wherein I happened to be sheltering.
“Darling,” she cried.
Or it could have been “Sweetheart”, or “Dear heart”, something along those lines in any case that I can’t exactly recall because I went sort of numb in the head at the time. She ran into my arms and buried her face into my neck. One word comes to mind, reader. Zing. Yes, that is it exactly. Zing went the strings of my heart.
After a moment’s hesitation, I got into the swing of things and enthusiastically reciprocated her physical affection. Of course I did. I mean, wouldn’t you? Wouldn’t anybody?
“Here, steady on,” she said, pulling away and eyeing me askance through frosty blue eyes, “There’s no need to hug me quite so tightly, you know.”
“Am I? Good Lord, so I am. I had no idea…”
“Yes, well, it was very presumptuous of you,” she said, adjusting her hair.
“Look, I’m terribly sorry,” I said, “but we seem to have gotten off to a rather confusing start. You appear to be under the misapprehension that we know each other, and know each other quite intimately too, if I may say so. But I’ve never met you before in my life. Believe me, I would remember if I had.”
My mystery woman wasn’t listening to a word. She was staring back at that Austin Seven hovering by the bus stop with its engine running, a plume of white exhaust smoke curling from its rear. Then she startled the living daylights out of me all over again by flinging herself back into my arms and whispering into my ear. “You wouldn’t like to take me out for a drink, would you?”
Would I? Hot diggety dog! As our American cousins are wont to say in motion pictures when expressing delight. We ran hand in hand down Argyll Street in the rain; just like in a Hollywood musical, yes, just exactly as ridiculously romantic as that. The rain had eased a little and the air felt altogether exhilarating against the skin although this might have been due to the delirium of holding hands with an angel who had but recently whispered provocative sweet nothings into my quivering ear hole. It was mad. It was crazy. It was an American film come luminously alive. At the bottom of the street we hijacked a taxi from another couple just as they were about to step into it. My new companion pushed past them, rattling off something about a medical emergency, a heart attack and a husband. I clutched my chest and tried to look as if I might be dying even though I had never felt more alive than at that very moment.
She leaned forward to talk to the driver.
“Which ‘ospital do you want to take ‘im to, madam?” he asked her.
“Actually, I think first we might try a shot or two of medicinal brandy,” she coolly replied. “Forget the hospital for the moment. Just take us to the nearest nightclub. And step on it, will you? We’re in a bit of a hurry.”
We didn’t talk for the rest of the journey; she was too busy anxiously scanning the road; looking out for the occupant or occupants of that Austin Seven, I supposed; I didn’t like to ask. I had no wish to dispel the magic of the moment, you see. Sitting so close to her in the shadowy taxi interior I felt the most peculiar sensation sort of wash through my body from somewhere. The poets would say it was via my heart or my soul; the scientists would lay the blame upon unpronounceable chemicals swishing about in my brain; the cynics would look no further than the loins and good old-fashioned lust. Myself, I had no doubts at all. I was firmly on the side of the poets. So this is what it’s like, I remember thinking; the real thing; this is love. Idiotic, I know. After all, I’d literally barely met her and yet the feeling was overwhelming.
We drove through Regent Street, turned into Golden Square and then down Sink Street. Finally the cab driver pulled over at the Mood Indigo. This club was a favorite haunt of the exuberant bohemian types whom the gossip columnists insisted on labeling Bright Young People; although, take it from me, a good many of that crowd weren’t particularly bright or particularly young.
“Looks like a lively sort of place,” my charming new companion observed. “Have you ever been here before?”
“Who, me? I smiled. “No, no, a little too fast and loose for my tastes, I’m afraid. In fact, why don’t we try somewhere a little quieter?”
“Oh, don’t be such an old fuddy-duddy,” she said, jumping out of the cab and pulling me by the hand behind her.
“Evening, sir.” The doorman tipped his hat with a nod that I strove to ignore.
“Welcome back, sir,” the maître d’ beamed. I pressed one of the larger coins of the realm into his palm to cut off any further chitchat and he led us to an intimate booth tucked away at the rear of the club.
“Your usual, sir?” the waiter enquired without bothering to bring a drinks list. I nodded abruptly and became to all intents and purposes thoroughly fascinated by the glass bowl of salted nuts he had placed on our table.
The waiter smiled oleaginously at my companion. “And for the young lady?”
“Oh, I’ll have the usual too, I think. Whatever that is.”
“I couldn’t help noticing,” she said after the waiter slid away from our table, “that we have yet to encounter a club staff member with whom you are not on familiar terms. Curious, considering you have never been here before.”
I favored her with a ghastly smile and went back to wolfing down salted nuts at a terrific rate of knots. The waiter brought us two champagne cocktails and I polished mine off and signaled for another whilst she sat opposite not saying a word, merely smiling at me and looking as if she were weighing me up and finding me absolutely wanting in several departments, integrity being not the least of them.
“Well, that’s two things I’ve learnt about you already,” she said. “You’re an incorrigible liar and you frequent disreputable night clubs.”
Ouch. All in all, not the best of first impressions, one gathers. It was time to come clean, I decided; well, reasonably clean anyway. Too much cleanliness in the truth department never did anyone any good, don’t you think?
“I’m awfully sorry,” I said. “I suppose I should have told you that I have a passing familiarity with this place, but you see, I don’t come here anymore. I haven’t been for months in fact. It was a part of my life a long time ago and I have very much outgrown this sort of thing.”
“Well, you certainly made an indelible impression on the club staff all those months ago,” she said.
Mercifully, the orchestra burst into noisy life at this juncture. It was a brassy, sleazy-sounding number that all but winked suggestively at the audience and served to introduce a line of immodestly clad dancing girls. An entertainer sauntered on stage from the wings and commenced to sing in a mellifluous tenor voice. He fairly belted out those notes until his eyes seemed just about ready to pop out of his fat face. Couples surged onto the dance floor in response to the music. Soon the joint was jumping as they say in the American pictures.
“Care to dance?” I asked her.
“Delighted,” she said.
Not half as delighted as I was, I would wager. This is something you should know about me, reader; I am what you might call a superb dancer even if I do say so myself. We were in my world now, the dance floor, and I could move with an energy and grace that made perfect sense. She was no mean dancer herself, which naturally enough fascinated me even more. In fact there are few qualities I admire more in a woman than the ability to hoof it with the best of them. After a couple of numbers the orchestra began to play “Cheek To Cheek” which is my second favorite song in the whole world. Of my absolute favorite song, we shall speak later, reader. Anyway, my mystery woman and I were close and the urge to kiss her was overwhelming. At that moment I experienced the lightning bolt to the heart that the French call the coup de foudre and I knew, I just knew with startling clarity that this particular tingling, prickling, tickling sensation was Real Love as opposed to previous pale, wan versions that I now understood to be but shallow imitations.
“Heaven, I’m in heaven, And my heart beats so that I can hardly speak.”
We were nose to nose rather than cheek to cheek by this stage and my vision sort of blurred and everything became like one of those Vaseline-smeared, close-ups from a Cecil B. DeMille film. Why oh why couldn’t life be like this all the time?
We sat down at the end of the set and the waiter brought us another round of champagne cocktails.
“You dance beautifully, she said. “but I expect you know that.”
“Do I? Yes, I expect I do.” No point denying the undeniable, was there? And then it happened again. Zap. This time with greater intensity, even more powerful than anything that had preceded it. How to explain it? Our eyes caught and locked in a way that was frank and thrilling, that made my stomach lurch, my heart race and my hair stand on end.
“My God, but you’re lovely,” I found myself compelled to say.
“How very sweet of you,” she said, “but that is laying it on a bit thick, don’t you think? I mean, we hardly know each other, after all.”
“On the contrary, I think I know you very well, or at least, I know all that I need to know.”
Of course she was absolutely correct and I didn’t know the first thing about her. What I meant was that, entirely illogically, something had changed in the precise moment after we exchanged that one glance; it felt like a sort of emotional secretion, a gooey, warm, fuzzy syrupy gloop coating my nerve endings. I know what you’re thinking, reader, and I can hardly blame you – some people might call this mere love-at-first sight; the shallowest of infatuations; an entirely physical instant attraction. Well, you can jolly well think what you like, reader, I know what I felt and no amount of rational persuasion could have altered that. There was no denying the impact, whatever biological shenanigans might have been thrumming in my veins. It felt something like being smacked none too gently in the kisser with a heavy frying pan.
We chatted for ages after that, mostly about music, dancing, motion pictures we had seen recently, about theatres, restaurants and clubs; and all the while it felt like a conspiracy, this mutual disinclination to talk about great chunks of our personal lives – nothing about the usual things that crop up, our family backgrounds, say, or whether or not there might be the odd vase-hurling fiancé hanging about in one’s closet of skeletons. This might sound a little dishonest but right at that moment I would have done anything to perpetuate the electric current crackling through the fiber of my being; I had never felt more incandescently alive, a veritable light bulb of love. By the way, I don’t mean to say that we colluded in what amounted to the withholding of our personal information. In fact my companion seemed keen to draw me out but I slipped away from anything too specific. I didn’t feel bad about this at all because the young lass happened to be doing exactly the same. After an hour or so it felt like we had talked a great deal about each other – but nothing at all about our everyday lives.
A waiter arrived at that point bearing two plates of haddock in a white sauce. Something to do with a perfunctory nod towards the liquor licensing laws pertaining to nightclubs. She looked at me rather dreamily through the malodorous haze wafting off our haddocks and said, “There’s something I’d like to ask you. Would it be too rude of me to enquire about your name and your permanent residential address? The one in which you are at this moment domiciled?”
Permanent residential address? At this moment domiciled? The wattage coursing through my light bulb of love flickered a bit at this, I must admit. I mean, as questions go it sounded somewhat unromantic. A trifle close too the bone, even. For goodness sake, I don’t believe even my mother knew my permanent residential address at which I was at that moment domiciled; if she had, the old girl would’ve been popping in and out at all hours of the day and night and that, clearly, would never do. There was something rather formal and forbidding about the question too. Good Lord, might she be working for the authorities? An inspector for HM Revenue And Customs, could it be? Or perhaps a private detective hired by Clara to catch me out in a devious honey trap? I took out my cigarette case and offered her one. I lit both cigarettes and said, “Frederick. My friends call me Freddie.”
I could tell she didn’t believe me; I don’t know why; perhaps I don’t look like a Frederick.
“Now, now, you’re being coy,” she said, smiling but in a rather strained sort of way, “Do be a darling and tell me your real name. And your current address please. We simply must see each other again, don’t you think?”
“But of course,” I said.
“Well? Go on then, don’t be shy.”
“It’s not shyness, believe me. Please don’t be offended but there is rather a good reason why it might be best if we were to continue to conduct our friendship anonymously, as it were.”
The reason, of course, was my fiancé Clara, she of the vase-hurling, homicidal urges.
At this point something sort of nuzzled insistently up against my groin under the table. Extremely pleasant it felt too, I am bound to say.
“I was hoping it wouldn’t have to come to this quite so soon,” she said.
“Really?” I replied, “I was rather hoping it would.”
“Can you feel that?” she said with an intimate smile.
“Absolutely,” I said.
“Do you know what it is?”
“Yes” I said, blushing to the roots of my pubic hair.
“What is it, then?”
“It’s your rather lovely forefinger and I do believe it is stroking my throbbing member,” I mumbled with, I regret to say, a fatuous smile.
“No,” she said, “ Actually it’s the barrel of a revolver.”
I tell you, reader, never has an erection wilted to a wizened stump so swiftly in the annals of penile erogenous history.
“You’re joking aren’t you?” I managed to say through constricted vocal chords.
“Never more serious, I’m afraid,” she said.
I heard a clicking sound consistent with a trigger being cocked on a decent sized revolver. I could feel my testicles frantically scrambling for the exit, seeking to make an ascent back to the cavity from whence they had originally descended all those years ago. Interesting physiological fact: despite much testosterone-charged bravado to the contrary, your average testicle is a coward and not to be relied upon in a crisis.
“And now I must ask you for your name again, and some proof of identification too, please. I presume a social gadfly like yourself has a calling card.”
I took the wallet from my jacket and handed her my card.
“Oliver,” she said, “Oliver Lightfoot”. She said it in such a sweet way; truly, reader, she wrapped my name up in honeyed tones and it sounded so damned delightful that I could almost overlook the fact that she was threatening to blow my genitals off at any moment.
“Now that you have my name, would you mind awfully removing the…the…” I pointed vaguely under the table.
“Oh, of course,” she said, “I do beg your pardon.” I caught a glimpse of it as she slipped the beastly thing into her purse – a .32-inch Webley pocket revolver. Standard army issue; I possessed one just like it when I was in the Officer Training Corp back in my Oxford days.
“I shall call you Ollie,” she said. It seemed as if we were going to say nothing more about the military ordnance presently holstered in her fashionable designer handbag.
I lit another cigarette with, I must admit, a shaking hand. She was turning me into a chain smoker.
“Why in God’s name did you do that?” I asked her. “Pull a gun on me, I mean.”
“Awfully sorry,” she said. “Let’s not spoil the night, Ollie. Let’s just pretend it never happened.”
I took a deep swig of champagne and said, “I don’t think I can do that. You scared the hell out of me. I demand to know what this is about.”
“You really are quite masterful when you’re cross, Ollie,” she said, turning to favor me with that smile again; I would go so far as to say it was the most alluring smile you could ever hope to encounter outside of the Hollywood star system. “Don’t be cross with me. I really have taken a shine to you, dear boy. You’re sweet and you dance divinely.”
“Thank you for saying so. Now then, you have me at a disadvantage; I don’t have a revolver handy to compel a reply, but would you mind terribly if I asked for your name as well?”
She pouted at me. “Sarcasm is unbecoming Oliver. It doesn’t suit you at all. But of course I shall tell you my name. Or, at least, a name. You can call me Mata Hari.”
“Mata Hari? The international spy? The femme fatale?”
“No, not that Mata Hari. She died yonks ago. You don’t really keep up with the times, do you, Ollie, you funny old thing? Let’s just say I’m the next Mata Hari. You might say it’s s a professional nickname.”
“A nickname, eh?” I said. “ I suppose it makes sense. I can hardly expect you to provide your real name given the stunt you just pulled with the revolver.”
She sighed. “Can we just set aside the whole unfortunate revolver incident? Really, Ollie, I must say you’re blowing the whole thing out of proportion. Of course I would never have fired the awful thing. It was just a way to get your undivided attention, is all it was. And you must admit it succeeded rather well in doing that.”
“It did indeed. I’m pleased to meet you, Mata Hari.”
“Likewise, Ollie. Now then, I shall leave you for a little while. I’m going to powder my nose and I may be some time.”
And with that she departed like Captain Lawrence Oates on that famously depressing Antarctic expedition. Not, of course, that the historical Oates trotted off to powder his nose; well, not as far as we know from a scrutiny of Scott’s last diary entries in any case. What I mean to say is that I felt a deep sense of foreboding. I watched her until she disappeared down the passage leading to the rest rooms, and I waited in vain for her to re-emerge. Some instinct told me bad things were about to happen.
The events of the next few minutes were extremely confusing and I still haven’t quite got the whole thing sorted in my mind. It started with a loud series of bangs or, as we used to call them back in my officer training days, gunshots. Then someone screamed piercingly, a woman I suppose or, who knows, possibly a man who had just had his testicles shot off – given there was a .32 Webley pocket revolver lurking somewhere about the joint one could never be altogether certain. A man staggered out of the passageway leading to the restrooms, clutching a large bloody patch on the front of his shirt.
There were more screams, tables and chairs toppling, people springing up and performing an impromptu rendition of the headless chicken – running to and fro with no idea as to where exactly they were going or for what reason. Two courses of action immediately occurred to me, one so ignoble it hardly bore thinking about, and the other the only decent thing to do under the circumstances – either I could make a panicky dash for the front door like all the other decapitated poultry around me or I could head for that passageway wherein Mata Hari had ventured to meet God only knew what fate. It goes almost without saying that I made a panicky dash for the front door. Look here, you would have done exactly the same. I was unarmed in the middle of a gunfight and my testicles were feeling decidedly jumpy after their recent near-death experience. A strategic withdrawal was warranted.
An hour or so later I wearily ascended the three floors to my apartment. I’d caught a bus part of the way but was forced to walk for a good half an hour through intermittent rain with not a taxi to be found. My eyes were lowered disconsolately to the ground until they alighted upon a fetching pair of ankles. She was leaning against my door, her expression affectionate, her posture relaxed; it was almost as if we had arranged this rendezvous. And I suppose we had in a way, only it had never occurred to me that she would avail herself of my address details quite so soon.
“Hello, hello, we keep bumping into each other,” she said. “I’ve come for the notebook. Have you found it yet?”
She pointed at my jacket pocket. I put my hand in and took out a notebook I had never seen before.
“You slipped this into my pocket, didn’t you?”
She nodded. “When we first met. Whilst we embraced. I don’t usually hug complete strangers, you know. Well, not without a jolly good reason. I had to get rid of the notebook just in case things went badly for me. I’m sure you understand. I was in a fix. Being followed by some rather bad people. ”
“I do hope that means you are working for the good people?”
She gave me a compassionate smile.
“Oh, but darling, there are no good people, I’m afraid. There’s just our side and their side. And even that’s hard to follow sometimes because people rather muck things up by switching sides at the most awkward moments.”
“Look, I have to ask you this – did you shoot that man with your .32 inch Webley pocket revolver tonight?”
“I most certainly didn’t.”
I smiled, hugely relieved. “Thank goodness for that. But who did? What happened to him?”
“Well, first I disarmed him and then I shot him with his own Glock semi-automatic. That way there is no way to trace it back to me, you see.”
She said it so casually that I couldn’t quite believe my ears. “Oh my God. You killed a man?”
“Well, it was him or me, sweetheart. And you wouldn’t want it to be me, would you? And if it makes you feel any better, he was one of those annoying fellows I told you about just now, the sort who switch sides. And now, I know you must be full of questions and this is rather a lot to take in but I’m afraid we’ve run out of time.”
“What happens now?”
“Tomorrow I catch a ferry to Calais. Then, the 10.30 express to Marseilles. I have to be in Cairo in three days time.”
“Cairo? As in Egypt?”
“That’s the one, yes. I’m going to meet a man who will give me the code for this notebook.”
“I think you should know I am engaged to someone and have been for some time,” I said. “Her name is Clara.”
I had no idea why I felt the need to say that. Hardly relevant to murder and espionage, after all. And, anyway, Clara and I were pretty much a lost cause, so why bring her up? It seems I’m always trying to shoot myself in the foot. Self-sabotage I believe the Viennese doctors call it.
“Does she dance as well as I do?” she asked, apropos of pretty much nothing.
“No,” I said.
In truth, Clara was a dedicated enthusiast with all the twinkle-toed finesse of a water buffalo; the problem, of which she seemed pitifully unaware, was that she lacked any sense of rhythm. From that alone I should have known it was never going to work out.
“Will I ever see you again?” I asked.
“Only if you come to France with me in the morning. Lone females tend to draw attention. A holidaying couple will look more inconspicuous; we can pretend to be honeymooners or even just lovers – the French are far less stuffy about that sort of thing. Would you like to come to France with me in the morning, Ollie?”
I wasn’t expecting that. Quite took my breath away for a moment.
“Obviously I can’t do that. It would be a thoroughly mad thing to do. And reckless. It would go against my nature. I should point out to you that I’m thirty-three years old and for the last nine years I’ve worked in an investment bank.”
“Really?” she said smiling pleasantly, “A bank. Who would have thought it?”
“That’s right, a bank. Just call me a bank clerk and be done with it. Mostly application forms pertaining to personal loans and mortgages. So you see, the only thing I do well, really well, apart from vile, loathsome bank documents, is dance.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself, Ollie; you’re also dedicated to the frequenting of disreputable night clubs,” she added archly.
“As for the night clubs and all that Bright Young People tabloid rot,” I went on, “ I was merely a hanger on at the fringe of the crowd, if anything. And of course there’s Clara to consider, although to be frank I’m pretty sure she’s had enough of me. Anyway, as you can see all this has not exactly prepared me for whatever it is you are mixed up in, which is clearly terrifying and dangerous.”
She smiled gently. “Dear Ollie Lightfoot, let us not talk of your glum old past or your drab, ho-hum future. Let us instead speak of right now, this very moment with the music in our ears and our feet in perfect symmetry and a rather wondrous rhythm sweeping us along to who knows what messy fate. And yes, there may be trouble ahead, there may be teardrops to shed, so while there’s moonlight and love and romance…”
She trailed off, leaving the words to hang in there.
It was my absolute favorite song in the whole world, but how could she know that? How could she possibly know? Well, I suppose it is a popular song, after all. Mata Hari beamed at me and my heart melted into a puddle at her feet all over again. And I know I said previously that what I had felt was the genuine article as indeed I said the time before that and the time before that, right up to the point I had first set eyes on this marvelous Mata Hari of the heart, but this time, yes, this time, reader, I had no shadow of doubt in my feverish excuse for a mind – this was Real Love. In glorious Technicolor.
“I’d pack something light,” she said. “ It gets terrifically hot in Cairo, Egypt.”
I packed a suitcase with two pairs of white trousers, five white silk shirts, a cream linen jacket, a panama hat and a cravat. At the last moment I threw in my teddy bear. Thus equipped, I walked away from the grainy black and white celluloid world that I had, like an apparition, haunted rather than inhabited for years, and set my feet on the dance floor of life with the lyrics of my beloved song “Let’s Face The Music And Dance” rising all about me in an orchestral crescendo. And, yes, I knew she would break my heart. I knew I had allowed myself to become mired in shifty double-dealing of the most dangerous kind. I knew, too, that she was manipulating me for her own ends. I didn’t care, reader. Because this was the mischievous, magnificent stupidity of love at first sight. And truly, there is no mischievous, magnificent stupidity quite like it.