On a cold dark night
ON a recent business trip to Rome, I had the pleasure of sharing an apartment in the city’s historic quarter with three colleagues. Sitting on the second floor of a centuriesold building, the cosy accommodation was within spitting distance of the Pantheon and barely 10 minutes walk from the Coliseum. What’s not to like about that?
One day, towards the end of my stay there, two of my colleagues flew home, leaving me and Evelyn, a young woman from Kenya, to a half empty apartment. As Evelyn had an early morning trip to the airport the next day, she was fast asleep long before the city’s nightlife began stirring.
With no one to talk to, a dodgy Internet connection, a television set that didn’t work, and a pair of overworked eyes, I decided to have an early night too, and was tucked up in bed way before midnight.
The next thing I knew, I was being jarred out of my sleep at four o’clock in the morning by the incessant ringing of the doorbell. Evelyn was still fast asleep while her ride to the airport waited impatiently downstairs.
There followed a frantic flurry of activity as Evelyn cursed her alarm clock and began throwing things into a suitcase. Five minutes later, I grabbed a set of apartment keys from the dining table and rushed downstairs after her, her travel bag in my hand.
When I passed through the outer door that opened onto the small cobbled side street outside, the cold November air penetrated my thin Malaysian pyjamas. I shivered, rushed over to the waiting taxi at the bottom of the short walkway, dumped Evelyn’s bag into the boot, said a hurried goodbye to her and watched as the vehicle’s tail lights disappeared down the road that cuts through the heart of the Jewish District.
A blast of cold air hurried me back towards the apartment building. I quickly opened the huge creaking outer door and climbed up the two flights of cold stone stairs. As I stuck my key in the apartment door and turned it in the old brass lock, I was already imagining myself back in my warm bed. But the key refused to turn. I removed it from the lock, inspected it and tried again. Nothing. I tried to force the key ever deeper into the lock. Still nothing. My heart began to beat faster in my chest. In my rush to get out, I had inadvertently left a set of keys in the lock on the inside of the door, making it impossible for the door to be unlocked from the outside.
I stood there in my flimsy pyjamas with no telephone, or money, and tried to come up with a plan. The housing agent’s telephone number was written in tiny “hieroglyphics” on my key ring; but a fat lot of good that was at that hour. What’s more, I didn’t have my glasses, my telephone or money for a public telephone.
After a few minutes on that cold stair outside the apartment door, I began to shiver. I decided to go outside and see if I could find someone to help me. Perhaps I could hang out in the friendly neighbourhood police station until it was a decent enough hour to contact the housing agent.
I went back down to the cobbled street and followed it to where it opened up into a small piazza (square) containing a tinkling fountain. There wasn’t a policeman in sight, but the sound of all that running water roused my bladder into action. As if I didn’t have enough to worry about.
I made my way towards a little side street on the opposite side of the piazza but stopped abruptly when I heard footsteps coming towards me.
My instincts told me that this wasn’t a good situation to be in.
Then I heard the sound of someone clearing his throat.
You can tell a lot about a person by the way they clear their throat. The person in the street opposite was probably as rough as the noise he made – I suspect he had large hands, nicotine stained fingers, stale alcohol on his breath and a coat that carried several years of unsavoury odours. But I didn’t stay there long enough to find out.
I ran back to the outer door of my apartment building, unlocked it with shaking hands, and took the stairs two at a time, back to that unyielding apartment door.
So much for that plan. At that point, I wished myself ten thousand kilometres away in the warmth of my Malaysian home.
As I sat on the cold steps, my teeth began to chatter uncontrollably. I just had to come up with another plan.
To be continued next week.