A thick haze defused the sunlight giving the day an otherworldly glow.
It must have been the weekend, probably a Saturday. The footpaths were thickly populated with people happier than they would be on a weekday.
Everyone was going somewhere, but it was non-combative, easy-going, almost joyful.
I was walking and had been for quite a while. So long, in fact, that I had to keep track of where I was so I could get back.
The City of Melbourne is laid out on a grid like many significant cities, so as long as you don’t mind walking, you will come across a street you recognise sooner or later.
I’m not a fan of crowds, but I can tolerate them on certain occasions. This was one of those times, though I reached my limit when I arrived at a crossroads. The traffic lights were against me, so I worked my way to the front of the crowd — a chance to give my unease a bit of room to breathe.
The crowd I had been travelling with thinned out. Most of them turned left and strode up the hill.
The sun was burning off the morning mist, and the warmth soaked into my jacket and warmed my face.
She came up on my left-hand side and put her arm through mine, precisely the way a wife or a lover might.
I turned my head to see who this person was. I didn’t recognise her — I thought I might.
She was just below my eye level in heels, and her ponytail, set high on her head, made her appear taller than she was.
She looked at me with a combination of mild recognition and anticipation. I expected her to smile. She didn’t.
“So, where are we going?” I heard myself say.
I had been facing straight ahead, but now I was turning to the right as the lights changed to green.
“Oh, so we are going this way,” I said, and she moved in step with me or did she lead me in that direction — I’m not sure.
It was then that I realised I was doing all the talking. I could have sworn that she was talking to me, but her lips weren’t moving. Either way, I could hear her.
She was dressed conservatively in a light coloured blouse, skirt and a cardigan. All of her colours were subdued, but they suited her there and then.
Come to think of it, everyone around me seemed to be dressed a bit old fashioned.
As we walked, arm in arm, we turned up a minor road, and the footpath was narrow, but we had it all to ourselves.
I could smell the dust in the air and the faint smell of animals, something like visiting the Zoo or the Showgrounds. The aromas were familiar in my childhood but now strangely out of place.
The path we were on led to a small hotel.
The foyer was tiny with wood panelling and a mosaic tiled floor.
There was a lone concierge behind a polished wooden counter. He didn’t speak.
He turned and took a key from the green felt-lined pigeon holes. The key had a brass tag — number twenty-two.
Initially, he offered the key to the lady who was still holding my arm, but a look from her made him show it to me.
I took the key, and she led me to the steep stairs — built before modern building regulations. The carpet runner was held in place by ornate brass stair rods.
The stairs were just wide enough for us to walk on them together.
Our room was at the top of the stairs. The key turned smoothly in the lock, and the room’s aroma was not unpleasant — fresh soap, clean towels and possibly coffee from the morning just passed.
Being in what amounted to a full-service bedroom seemed luxurious and slightly forbidden in the middle of the day.
I watched her silently undress.
She stood in her slip and looked at me. I expected her to demand that I match her undressed state. She didn’t.
From what I could see, her breasts were average, and her hips were neither wide nor slim. Her stomach had that distinctive bump that all females have. I love that part of a woman.
She shed her shoes and carefully lined them up next to the bed.
She didn’t let her hair down, and I didn’t mind.
Her eyes were clear and bright, and I didn’t get the feeling that she did this kind of thing often. Maybe that was naive of me, but there it was. I’ve travelled for business, and I know what it feels like when you are approached by a woman who flatters a man for money. This was not that. I have no idea what this was, but it wasn’t that, which made me a little nervous.
I ran my hands over her still partially clothed body, and she watched me with that same look. To her, I could have been a puppy or a knight; her gaze would have suited both.
For the first time, she broke her gaze, turned away from me and removed the rest of her clothes, laying them neatly on the chair at the side of the bed.
I undressed quickly and slid into bed after discarding the heavy quilt.
The sheets were cold but comforting — another memory from childhood.
We explored each other’s bodies. No rush, no sign of haste. Each movement electric.
The smell of her was driving me crazy, but I held my composure.
She rolled her body against mine, and where she touched my skin, it felt like fire.
I’m not inexperienced in making love, but I have to say that I was taking my lead from her on this occasion. I always want to please the woman I’m with, it’s a point of honour, but this was something else.
I was intoxicated by being close to her.
I could tell that time was passing because the shadows in the room were moving across the floor.
I’m in good shape, but I was feeling fatigued and hungry, but I was not going to stop what we were doing to each other, not until she had had enough of me.
I’m tempted to say that it was the best sex I’ve ever had, but it was not like that. It wasn’t an occasion for a schoolboy boast.
Being with her, inside her, made me feel like I was home. Home and safe and powerful and wise and worthy.
I never wanted the experience to end, but it did, and I watched her walk across the room and into the shower, her body silhouetted against the harsh light of the bathroom.
“Great bum,” I said, but she didn’t answer.
I watched her dress and then sit demurely as I showered and dressed.
“Food?” I said as I tied my shoelaces. I’ve been good at shoelaces since I was six years old — my mum taught me how to do it.
I offered her my arm, and she took it.
We walked down the stairs together, and my legs felt like rubber; she seemed fine. I’m going to have to hit the gym if I’m going to keep up with this woman.
I gave the night porter the key, and he thanked me.
The street lights were on, but it wasn’t completely dark. There was still an amber glow low in the sky.
“We just made love for an entire afternoon and I don’t know your name,” I said.
We were walking next to a bench, and she put her handbag down, took out her purse, and produced a card. The card read ‘Alice Ayres’ and nothing else.
“I know that name,” I said, “but I’m not sure where I know it from.”
“Burger and chips or something a bit more upmarket?” I said. She didn’t answer. She retook my arm and led me along the street until we came to an old fashioned Italian restaurant.
The owner greeted us warmly, almost as though we were regulars.
We drank a lot of wine, and the food came straight from heaven.
“I remember where I know your name from,” I said, ‘it’s one of the plaques on the wall at Postman’s Park in London. Have you ever been to London?”
She shook her head.
After that, I have no idea what happened.
“We went to the hotel you described Mr Wilson,” said the uniformed officer sitting across the metal table from me.
“And?” I said.
The sign on the door says ‘closed’, and it doesn’t look like it has taken in guests for a long time.
“I was just there this afternoon. All afternoon,” I said.
“You mean yesterday afternoon,” said the officer.
“Yes. Yesterday. You know what I mean. Yesterday afternoon,” I said.
My head hurt, and my clothes smelled like I’d spent the night in an alley, which is where I was, apparently. That’s where the Chinese cook found me when he turned up to prep for the morning rush. Nice bloke. He gave me a coffee before noticing the bump on my head.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have given you coffee. It’s probably not good for concussion,” he said.
I assured him that coffee was good for everything.
The lump on my head was in a spot that made it unlikely that I’d done it to myself.
The police officer and the ambulance driver concurred.
“Someones walloped you on the head mate,” said the paramedic.
I felt the lump, and it felt numb and painful all at the same time.
“None of this makes any sense to me,” I said.
“Me either,” said the police officer.
“Why hit me over the head and not take anything?” I said.
“It’s a first for me too sir.”
“I’m worried about the woman I was with. Did the restaurant say what happened to her. Was she with me when I left. I don’t remember leaving,” I said.
“The restaurant is closed for a month. Big sign on the door. Thanking all their patrons. No one answers when we ring. No one with the name you gave us has turned up at any of the city hospitals and no reports from other police stations. I’d say that no news is good news. Do you have a number for her?”
“No. We’d only just met.”
The police officer gave me a look that said, ‘you’re a fast worker mate’, but I ignored it.
“We have your number and we’ll let you know if anything comes up,” he said, which was shorthand for saying, ‘we have better things to be getting on with than a bloke who got lucky and then got knocked on the head without getting robbed’. I could see his point.
I stepped out onto the street, and light rain was falling. Yesterday’s balmy weather had given way to a grey day of wet pavements and flowing gutters.
I walked for a while, not knowing where to go next.
I stopped to buy a paper. My wallet had way more money in it than I remembered. Add that to the list of things I don’t understand.
I walked to the Treasury Gardens after buying some sandwiches. I read the paper and ate the sandwiches. They tasted better than they should.
Reading the paper left me none the wiser.
I walked to the top of Bourke Street and waited for the lights to change. The rain had left the streets relatively empty.
I felt her slip her arm through mine.
I didn’t look at her. I didn’t want to jinx it.
She didn’t speak, but I knew what she wanted.
When the lights changed, we walked, arm in arm, across the street back in the direction of our hotel.