She couldn’t quite remember what he’d been saying, something about the wings of night and eternity and a journey. Nothing more than clichés: Let me take you away from all this. ‘You sound like a revivalist,’ she’d said, and he’d laughed at that. She had been drunk, and he was wearing a preposterous costume like he’d just come from the opera, with a great fur collar excessive even for New York at its wintriest. But his voice was entrancing, and his ungloved hands, long and thin, gestured in the sparkling air and she might have stayed, but then Charles turned up with a taxi and pulled her in and that was that, or it ought to have been.
The new mores of a new era always took a little learning. The scream was familiar, the towel that came spinning at his head less so.
‘What the fuck are you doing in my bathroom? Turn around right now!'
He complied. She had not, after all, asked him to leave, and in his extensive experience a poor beginning was seldom irrevocable. Not when he could make her dream that she had wished for it.
'I am sorry,' he said with a grave dignity that managed to survive the heavy accent. 'I fear I misunderstood - '
'Too right you did. And don't tell me surprising ladies in their bath is all the rage in sophisticated Europe. I've been to Europe, and the only surprise in their bathrooms is the bath. Now make yourself useful before you leave, and throw me that sponge. If you wish to introduce yourself properly, I shall be in the bar in half an hour - with my clothes on.'
He tossed the sponge towards her with an accuracy impressive for a man facing the wrong direction in a room so full of steam she couldn't even see his reflection in the mirror and swept out, the hem of his long coat flicking a last shadow around the door.
A calculated hour later she entered the bar to find him ensconced in one of the better corners, reading a German paper. On closer inspection he proved to have changed the costume of the previous evening for a decent suit, though provincial in cut and looking slightly as if he'd slept in it. He brushed away the waiter hastening over with the wine list.
'I do not drink wine.'
'Who does? Two martinis, Jimmy.'
'When I was younger,' he said, 'one didn't see women in bars. I consider it a sign of modern progress, if one requiring a little - adjustment in outlook.'
'You seem to have managed it. You're new to New York?'
He smiled, close-lipped. 'I have certain acquaintances here, but my own sojourn is a recent one.'
'You'll get to know it soon enough.'
'I feel I do already. As I stepped from the boat I felt it, for all the cities of humanity are the same. They are full of greed and savagery and differ only in degree, and here of all the places in the world that I have seen, you have surely built their apotheosis.'
'You know, if I didn't think the same I'd feel insulted. What do I care? We make the best martinis.'
His long fingers curled round his glass as he drained it, and signalled to the waiter for another.
She wasn't quite sure how she'd come to agree to dinner, at which he had eaten very little, or the nightclub. He watched the dance floor with predatory eyes.
'So what's your game,' she asked, over the champagne. 'You offered me the world last night; yes, I remember. When a man like you does that, he's usually got an ulterior motive. Fortunately, a lot of modern girls like that in a man.'
'Do you, Mrs Parker?'
'That depends on the motive; yours is kind of ambiguous. I wonder what you're really offering.'
He leant towards her, his voice low and persuading.
'A new world. A better world. A world of true freedom, and without end, where you shall awake to new life.'
'Jesus, you really are an evangelist, I should have known.'
He laughed, white teeth gleaming, his hands clenching over hers, the rings digging into her flesh. 'Of a different and darker religion than you have dreamt before, where I am the priest and the master. Come with me and learn wonders.'
She tugged her hands from his.
'You think very highly of yourself, don’t you? Let's say we stick to the dance floor for now.’
And for a while it was the dance floor, and then more champagne, and the streets of New York by night, seen anew from the shadow of his coat beneath an arm that never quite rested on her shoulder, until her head fell back and it seemed as if they were flying, and then her own room in the Algonquin again.
When she woke she was alone, a tact that she appreciated. Men were all too apt to outstay their welcome, when they had staying power at all, but there was no sign he had ever been there. She couldn't remember exactly what had happened, though she presumed the usual. Dim images flickered through her brain, of bearing him to the bed under her weight, still in his coat, feeling his kiss at her throat and a sharp sting, as if his tie pin had scratched her, an immensely powerful grip, and nothing after, and to prove it only a smear of blood on the pillow where she had lain. He must have been exhausting, for she had slept for hours. Even now the light behind the curtains faded with the last of the day: she moved to drag herself from the bed and felt - alive. Something was missing that was not the memory of those last moments of the evening, but something in herself. Something so much part of daily waking that its absence was for a moment almost a loss. She had no headache. Her thoughts were blissfully, terrifyingly clear. When she moved her body seemed to flow with extraordinary strength, and for the first time in as long as she could remember she had an appetite for breakfast, a powerful hunger that seemed to course through her. It felt wonderful. She rang for room service, and soon afterwards she understood.
It didn't change her life so much. The lunches had been dropping for some time, and she let them go without regret. There were still the nights. She'd always worked better at night, only now when she went to bed at dawn she woke refreshed on it. She went to Hollywood: there were lots of night owls there, long summer nights by an endless sea, and a city that devoured.