After The Conference
Karolin stifled a yawn, as she slid into her shoes. The conference had been even more tedious than she’d imagined. Four days trapped in an airless lecture theatre with a world-class selection of bores. At least she was free of that torture for another year. Maybe she could delegate to some grateful Ph.D. next time? It was a pleasing fantasy, but she knew they’d never go for it. She was stuck and she’d have to grin and bear it.
She checked the hotel suite one last time. Satisfied she hadn’t left anything, she hefted her suitcase off the bed. Three hours at the airport, another four on the plane, two at the other end — she’d be lucky to be home before nine. She glanced out the window down towards the old town and for the first time noticed the fog. A dense shroud was creeping over the rooftops, burying the Medieval streets. The effect was so dramatic, it reminded her of an old horror movie.
She moved closer to the window. The fog seemed almost purposeful, like some living being, filled with sinister intent.
She realised with a guilty pang that she hadn’t bothered to take the time to explore the town. All she’d seen was the conference hall and this innocuous hotel room. Once upon a time, she’d have wandered every street and alley, absorbed by an intimacy with the past. That thrill of connection was why she studied history in the first place, became an academic, devoted her life to a passion that suddenly, shockingly, seemed absent.
Her eyes shifted to her faint reflection in the window. A stranger stared back at her. Tailored grey suit, blond hair coiled into a shapeless knot, face unadorned by make-up, everything meticulously contrived to project authority untainted by sex. It was the character she played in this academic boys club, but there was a disturbing vacancy about it. An irrational sense of panic washed over her. She was turning into one of them. One of her despised, desiccated academics, a sexless bore drained of personality. Impulsively she let down her hair, shaking out her shoulder-length bob. It wasn’t enough. She pulled open her jacket. Her breasts swelled against a plain white blouse, opaque enough to conceal the equally white equally plain bra beneath. This was stupid, it wasn’t the uniform, it was deeper than that. She could see it in her eyes, no hint of personality, just an empty shell. The thought was too disturbing to contemplate. She turned away, snatching up the suitcase. The dull little room suddenly airless, suffocating.
Outside the corridor curved away towards the lifts. Blank identical doors lined either side, vanishing into the distance. She’d mocked it as a triumph of socialist surrealism, but now the joke felt thin. She hurried, head down, her eyes fixed on the drab patterned carpet, trying to ignore the nightmare of conformity. Trying to shake off this irrational panic.
As she turned the corner, lift doors opened and Professor Hishogi stepped out. Perfect. She’d managed to avoid the creep all week and here he was. His eyes fixed on her breasts.
“Ah Professor Staddt, how lovely you look this morning. If you’ll permit me to observe.”
The obsequious bow did nothing to disguise his lecherous stare. The old goat was notorious and she didn’t have time for this.
“Forgive me, Professor, I’d love to chat, but I have an early flight.”
He shook his head, “Have you not heard the news? The airport is closed. It is the fog. They say it comes from Russia. But here I think that is the source of all ill-fortune.”
He grinned, evidently pleased with his joke. This was a disaster, she couldn’t face another night in this mausoleum.
“How long do they expect it to last?”
He shrugged, “It seems we are trapped. You must allow me to invite you to dine. I would value your opinion on my paper.”
His rambling presentation of some half baked theory about post-war reconstruction sprang into her mind, along with the certainty she’d rather jump off a bridge than endure another moment in his company. She reached past him to the lift call button.
“I’d love to, but I have to get back for an urgent meeting. It looks like I’ll have to drive.”
He offered a curt bow, clearly annoyed, “As you wish, some other time.” He turned an walked away without a backward glance.
Relieved to be free of him, she wondered whether driving was a real possibility? It must be 1,500 miles, twenty hours at least. Could she face that? Her speculation was interrupted by the arrival of the lift. The doors parted with a fanfare of Muzak and she gave silent thanks it was empty. Dragging her suitcase into the corner, she leaned back against the wall, suddenly weary. As the lift began its slow descent, she glanced at the poster hanging in a tacky gilt frame by the doors. Near naked girls beckoned the willing to a local nightclub, where it seemed the only dancing was of the lap variety. She felt sorry for them, offering themselves up to be mauled by creeps like Hishogi, Maltepe Escort most looked younger than her first-year undergraduates. Their slender bodies, inflated by silicon, like overripe fruit begging to be picked. Still, the invitation was strangely alluring, a glimpse of raw sexuality lurking on the fringes of ordered existence.
She’d never had an interest in women, but somehow the seductive power of that chaos called to her now. What would it be like to live like that, to be ruled by passion, animal instinct, lust?
A chime interrupted her thoughts. Karolin glanced up. Seventh floor. The doors opened to an older couple – thankfully not stray academics. The man gave a polite nod by way of greeting, his wife scowled and muttered something sharp, in what sounded like Russian. Annoyed, he repeatedly jabbed at the lobby button until the doors responded. They continued down in frosty silence. Karolin watched the man’s eyes inevitably drift towards the naked girls. Another ageing lecher. Faintly disgusted she looked away. An idea began to form. She’d check on the airport at the reception desk, and if there was no news, she’d go down into the old town and explore. With any luck by the time she returned the airport would be open.
The lobby was choked with a bustling chaos of guests stumbling over piles of luggage. It looked more like a refugee camp than a four-star hotel. Hishogi’s gleeful prediction was starting to look all too plausible. Karolin pushed her way through the crowd towards the reception desk. The girl on duty was struggling to appease an angry Italian, so caught up in his outrage, that she could barely get a word in. Karolin didn’t have time for the floor show.
“Professor Clerici?” He turned, astonished at the interruption. Karolin gave him her best impression of a concerned bystander.
“One of the porters is looking for you, something about a stolen bag. He seemed quite agitated.”
Clerici’s alarm was priceless, she could barely contain a grin as he stormed off across the lobby swearing and gesticulating. The receptionist’s watched him go with evident relief.
“His bag was stolen?”
Karolin shrugged “We can only hope so.”
The girl blushed. She was young, pretty in a way that instantly recalled the girls from the poster. Stripped of the corporate uniform, she could almost be one of them. A sudden vivid image of her naked, flashed through Karolin’s mind. The receptionist smiled shyly.
“How may I help?”
“Can you tell me what’s happening with the airport?”
“It’s the fog Madam, when it comes in like this it usually lasts a day. I don’t think the airport will be open until the morning.”
Karolin glanced around the lobby at the growing crowd. This was a disaster.
“Is there somewhere I can hire a car? I have to get home and I really can’t wait until tomorrow?”
The girl looked mortified, “I’m very sorry Madam, but..” She gestured hopelessly at the crowd, “they have all gone.”
“So I’m stuck here?”
The girl looked like a deer caught in headlights. Karolin’s frustration was turning into anger.
“I’m sorry, there are no rooms. The hotel is fully booked. A Russian tour group.”
“You’ve got to be joking. What am I supposed to do? Wander the streets until the damn airport opens sometime God knows when?”
The girl looked ready to burst into tears. Karolin realised her frustration was intimidating, the girl was frightened. She knew she should apologize, but seeing the girl’s desperate need to please was strangely arousing. She couldn’t resist pressing her advantage.
“So how are you going to solve my problem?” Karolin reached across the desk and yanked at the name badge, pinned above the girl’s right breast, pulling her closer as if to read, “..Petra.”
The girl’s chest heaved, her eyes darting around the crowded lobby, terrified she’d be observed. Karolin could see the swell of her breast and the hint of a black lace bra through the gap in her shirt. She held her for the briefest instant but the effect was dramatic. A deep flush rose up the girl’s neck in a russet tide. Her eyes fixed on Karolin wide with fear.
“Well?” Karolin demanded.
The girl’s hand shook as she reached for a business card. She began hastily writing on the back, “I have a small apartment in the old town, you can stay with me until the airport opens. I only have one bed but I could sleep on the sofa.”
The girl thrust the card at her, her hand trembling with the unspoken invitation. Karolin was disconcerted, the game had taken an unexpected turn. She took the card, glancing at the scrawled address. The feelings it provoked were confused and faintly disturbing. She slipped the card into her pocket, unwilling to contemplate what it implied. She could think about that later, there was no rush, apparently, she wasn’t going anywhere.
“Thank you, Petra. that’s sweet of you.”
The girl beamed evidently relieved Maltepe Escort Bayan she hadn’t been rejected.
“I’ll leave my bag here. I thought I might take a walk, explore the old town.”
“Of course Madam, though I’d be happy to show you around myself. Tomorrow is my day off.”
Her eagerness was palpable, but Karolin had no intention of sticking around.
“I think I can manage.”
“Yes, of course, forgive me. I didn’t mean to suggest…” Her apology stumbled, eyes downcast. Karolin could see the girl’s nipple’s stirring beneath her blouse. She was getting aroused. Turned on by Karolin’s abrupt manner.
For a moment Karolin studied her, amazed at the effect she was having. The receptionist’s eyes remained fixed on the desk, submissively avoiding Karolin’s increasingly predatory stare. Karolin could feel her sex begin to respond. She had to put a stop to this. She was no lesbian. She stepped back.
“Well then, I’ll perhaps see you later.”
Not waiting for a reply, Karolin turned and pushed her way through the crowd towards the front entrance. She didn’t dare glance back but could feel Petra’s hungry gaze follow her out.
On the street the usual cluster of taxis had disappeared, leaving it oddly deserted. Karolin could smell the damp earthy fog, although it had yet to climb the hill this side of the river. Instinctively she pulled her jacket tight, shivering in spite of the unseasonably mild weather. The encounter with Petra had unsettled her in ways she didn’t want to contemplate. For a moment she lost her sense of direction, scanning the roads that led away from the hotel with glazed incomprehension. She shook her head, trying to dismiss the internal debate. What she needed was… She had no idea. But getting away from the hotel seemed like a good start.
She set off down a narrow cobbled street that seemed to head towards the river. It wound a narrow path through houses that grew ever more ancient and picturesque. There was no sign of life anywhere, her footsteps echoed with an agreeably sinister beat and she found her imagination drawn back to that half-remembered horror movie – a lone woman stalked by evil through deserted streets. She relished the fantasy, an indulgence she rarely allowed herself any more. She walked on, lost in the game.
Ahead, the street turned sharply to the right. As she approached the blind bend, she glanced back at the empty street. The sudden appreciation that she really was alone, that no one would look for her if anything were to happen, made her quicken her pace. It was a groundless fear, she knew, but the clatter of her heels seemed to drive her forward. She turned the corner and faced a steep descent. The cobbles glistened with moisture, and she was forced to slow down for fear of slipping.
Below her a bank of fog blocked the way, submerging the houses, like a murky river overspilling its banks. Karolin hesitated, she’d never encountered fog so dense, so rank with the scent of ancient forests. The walk suddenly seemed like a bad idea. What if she got lost? How would she ever find her way back to the hotel? She should turn back, hope it cleared and she could fly home.
But even as she reasoned her retreat, she began to walk down towards the blank grey nothingness. When she got closer, she was relieved to see it wasn’t as impenetrable as it had appeared. The drowned houses rose through the mist and she could hear the comforting sound of voices somewhere nearby. She hurried on, keen to leave this eerie solitude behind and lose herself in the company of strangers. At last, the street levelled and she could just make out the river embankment on the far side of the road.
In her eagerness, she stepped off the curb. The sickly glimmer of a headlamp flashed in the corner of her eye. Instinctively she leapt back as a scooter squealed by her, so close she thought at first she’d been hit. The rider shouted back at her, as he vanished into the fog like an angry apparition.
Karolin’s heart was racing. How could she be so stupid? She could have been killed. With a nervous glance at the now empty road, Karolin crossed to the embankment.
Somewhere below she could hear the river stirring. She walked on searching for a bridge. Gradually a stone crucifix began to take form, hovering weightless in the fog. She recognised the tortured, weather-worn figure that presided over the fourteenth-century bridge. Unexpectedly it roused that powerful sense of connection with the past she remembered from childhood.
She resisted an urge to run to the statue, but when she stood before it, she couldn’t help but reach out to lay her palm on the foot of the crucified Christ. The cold stone beneath her fingers thrilled her imagination, and she looked up in wonder at this mute witness of centuries. For the first time in longer than she cared to recall, she felt excited.
A straggle of tourists began to emerge from the fog. She wasn’t the only Escort Maltepe stranded soul trying to make the best of the day. The thought buoyed her up and she joined the general flow towards the main square. Here the fog was thinner and she could see a small group forming in front of the elaborate Medieval clock tower. She glanced at her watch, almost midday, the show was about to begin. She wandered over, as a small door opened beneath the clock face.
The figure of a blacksmith, with a hammer slung over his shoulder, glided towards a bell, lifted the hammer and struck the hour. It was the overture to an elaborate mechanised ballet, populated by a parade of surfs and nobles, imps and angels. Smartphones began to throw up a barrage of weak flash-light. Karolin watched the crowd eagerly examining their prizes, oblivious to the continuing pageant. Empty fragments snatched as proof of life that no one seemed willing to live any more. She wanted to despise them, but how could she? Wasn’t she too, just a spectator?
She turned away, frustrated with her incessant questioning. Across the square, a neon cafe sign burned bright. Her stomach offered a beckoning rumble and she realised she was hungry. Culture could wait.
The cafe was decorated in shabby art deco that looked original. A neglected anachronism that had somehow escaped the socialist vandals. She settled into a corner table and picked up a menu. The air was thick with the aroma of coffee and cigarette smoke. A waiter approached, his ripped jeans, Iron Maiden tee shirt and extensive tattoos, an ironic counterpoint to faded grandeur.
“Can I get you something?” His English was inflected with an American drawl.
“Black coffee. Do you have any hot food?”
“How about a sandwich, ham, cheese? Whatever you have will be fine.”
He slouched back towards the counter. Karolin watched him joke with the girl who was idly polishing a glass. She laughed and cast a glance in Karolin’s direction. The prospects for food weren’t looking good. She was tempted to walk out, but the cafe was warm and she needed the coffee.
Her eyes drifted over the other customers, two old men hunched over a chessboard, so immobile she half expected to see them draped on cobwebs, and an elderly lady hand-feeding a small lap dog who obligingly licked her cheek after every morsel. The dog lady looked up. She smiled, lifting the dog’s paw to wave a greeting. Karolin looked away. It was like being in a David Lynch movie, no wonder the place was empty.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the return of the waiter, carrying a laden tray with unexpected dexterity.
“Black coffee, sandwich, and a schnapps — on the house.”
Contrary to her expectations, the sandwich looked and smelt delicious, as did the coffee and the generous glass of warmed schnapps.
“This looks wonderful, thank you.”
He grinned at Karolin’s reaction, like a conjuror delighting in a good trick.”No problemo. Enjoy.”
The sandwich, was a heavenly concoction of warm artisan bread, filled with some type of paprika laced chorizo and a tangy melted cheese. It was a perfect blend of flavour and texture, to call it a sandwich was positively insulting. The coffee too was perfect, a rich deep flavour without a hint of bitterness. Karolin looked around the cafe, half expecting it to be magically transformed.
As if on cue the door swung open and a young couple ambled in. He was a bear of a man, tall, with a wiry black beard and floor-length leather coat. The girl seemed tiny in comparison. Her shaggy mane of dirty blond hair, mini skirt, and boots, only added to her elfin appearance. The man bellowed a greeting to the waiter, who hugged him like a long lost brother. The girl hung back, waiting for the macho dance to conclude. She looked eighteen at most, and at first, Karolin thought she was timid, hiding behind her man-mountain boyfriend. But the girl quickly tired of the male bonding and yanked at his sleeve dragging him towards a table. The boyfriend grinned at the waiter, shrugged and trailed behind her.
Behind the bar, the waitress turned on a CD and a heavy rock soundtrack filled the room. The dog lady scowled, wrapped the dog into the folds of her fur coat. The chess players, apparently immune, continued their glacial combat.
The couple settled into an old sofa fronted by a low coffee table, directly across from Karolin. She watched them, intrigued by the shifting dynamic. The girl was far from shy. Her hand immediately settled on his inner thigh and she pulled him into a hungry kiss. As her tongue explored, she raked his hair, drawing him closer. Gradually her hand crept towards his groin, where his arousal was already becoming apparent. The girl had a lustful urgency that was utterly compelling. Karolin felt powerless to look away.
Barely two minutes passed when the waiter returned carrying a bottle of wine. His intrusion broke the spell, and as the couple disentangled, the man looked up and his eyes caught Karolin’s. She turned away, flushed with embarrassment. The feeling intensified by the certain knowledge that he had read her interest for what it was. She gulped at the glass of schnapps. The raw alcohol caught in her throat and she struggled to suppress a cough.