The view from the hotel window is breathtaking. It’s the reason why I’d booked this room. ‘The best view in London,’ the website had boldly stated. In huge letters at the top of the page in an effort to mask the obscene price for an overnight stay mentioned in small circumspect numbers at the bottom. The number had been hard to ignore, even though cost didn’t matter for this night.
Today is the date of our silk anniversary. Twelve years since we took our vows. We’d skipped a celebration of our tenth, because silk means more to us than diamonds. It had been a red and yellow silk scarf, drifting on a gentle autumn breeze, that had brought me and the love of my life together.
The sun was slipping from view behind a row of centuries-old Parisian buildings, on that day, twelve years and some ago, as the waiter brought us our second bottle of wine. Tim and I had settled on the patio of a small café in a picturesque street away from the main tourist area, after having made good our escape from the tour group just before being ushered into yet another museum. I’d felt guilty at first, having crossed the Atlantic Ocean specifically to visit the stunning collections of works by the greatest painters in history that the Paris museums held, but four hours of the guide’s nasal fact spewing had taken all the joy out of it. Even five more minutes of his monologue would have been unbearable. It was obviously for the best that we had absconded. And the swiftly finished first bottle of wine had made short work of my residual feelings of guilt.
We were voicing our opinions about the snobby French, and their stubborn refusal to speak the English language – which from the look on his face, the waiter understood perfectly – when I saw her, and my interest in anything else ceased.
In the wake of the waiter’s silent and stiff-legged departure from our table, Tim continued his derogatory sermon concerning the French. It took him a while to notice that the conversation had become one-sided. His words didn’t even register, I was transfixed by this astonishingly beautiful woman (staring at her like one of those retarded cartoon characters, mouth hanging open and all, according to Tim, but I seriously doubt that). When he noticed the object of my attention, Tim started pestering me to approach her. I however, who wasn’t the most suave of men in any situation concerning attractive members of the fairer sex, was rooted to my seat. I couldn’t see myself walking to her table and chatting her up even if the continued existence of planet Earth depended on it. She was gorgeous. Radiant.
Tim continued his prodding and pushing for a while. Once it became obvious I wasn’t going to make a move, our conversation, fueled by our speedy consumption of the second bottle of quality wine (you can’t criticize the French on everything, Tim and I both agreed on that, definitely not on their wine, or their bread), turned to other topics. I couldn’t stop myself from glancing her way occasionally though – and by occasionally, I mean every sentence or so.
Keeping my eye on her gave me my chance. The girl of my dreams had draped her coat and scarf over an empty chair on the other side of their table. She and her friend were sitting close together, conversing almost at a whisper. The scarf had been flapping on the mild breeze for a while and was lifted into the air when a stronger gust of wind blew through the street. I burst from my chair –tipping it over – and sprinted after the runaway scarf. It had fluttered about ten feet down the street when I took a leap into the air and caught it. I felt heroic, like a knight after a joust, about to present a gift to his chosen lady.
Unfortunately, I had to relinquish the hold on my trophy a second later as a scooter ran into me from behind. I landed head-first on the pavement and when I next opened my eyes, I was staring at a hospital room ceiling. The scarf, freed from my grasp, continued its journey through the Parisian skies.
It was never recovered.
I on the other hand recovered quickly. My chosen lady came to see me at the hospital, and the rest is cheesy-romance-novel history. Emilie and I got married three months later.
Now I’m here in the highest hotel room in London, with ‘the best view in London,’ to celebrate the silk anniversary of the most joyous day of my life. And I. Cannot. Breathe. Panic has a stranglehold on my throat. This is insane. How can this be happening? Here? In London? This must be a dream. I close my eyes, pinch them shut as tight as I can.
Wake up. Wake up. Wake up.
I open my eyes. The view hasn’t changed.
My eyes snap shut again. It feels like I’ve lost control over my own body. My head starts swaying from left to right, right to left. Saying no. No, this can’t be.
A sound like boulders rolling down a mountain comes from somewhere close by, somewhere below. The hotel room shudders, the walls groan. My throat and eyes shoot open in response, letting in much wanted air. And unwanted reality.
The building groans again. The floor shakes. I almost fall over. A hissing sound comes from above. Water beats down on my head. Rain? No, must be the sprinklers. I’m soaked to the skin almost immediately.
I should move. Run. Get out. I feel detached, as if watching a movie. The scene in front of my eyes seems to be playing out in slow-motion pace.
This must be happening to someone else.
Reality shifts. The view changes from the London skyline – high-rise buildings in the distance, swaying in response to the violence of the earth, façades cracking, the London Eye slowly toppling over into the Thames – to London pavement as the hotel tips sideways and crashes into the neighboring building. The floor of the room I was standing on is now almost completely vertical. I fall two feet and crash into the window. I hear glass shatter. I tense up. This is it, I’ll plummet twenty-something stories down to the ground and end my existence as a red splat on the sidewalk.
The glass holds, it doesn’t even crack. I realize it’s the other window that’s broken, and see the couch, carpet, and coffee table tumbling through the air beneath me.
I slowly turn around, grab the window sill and pull myself toward it. I lift myself off the window and lean back against the wall. I’ve hardly moved since the start of the earthquake, but I feel like I’ve run a marathon. I’m soaked in sweat. My breath is running wild, I’m close to hyperventilating.
How is this possible? I’ve never heard of London, or anywhere in Britain for that matter, being anywhere near a major fault line. How could an earthquake hit here? Without warning, so fast, and with such force? In mere minutes, London is being ripped apart.
I consider closing my eyes again, maybe pinching myself, but why bother, this is real. As real as it gets. I’m stuck in the middle of a massive earthquake, stuck in a toppled over hotel, two hundred feet up in the air.
“Emilie!” She went to the bathroom what seems like hours ago but can’t have been more than five minutes. I shout her name again. No response. I stand up, using the wall for support. I feel weak, wrung out. I look around, trying to get my bearings. Flipped on its side, the room has got me completely disoriented. It takes me a long time – precious time, as the building trembles again – to locate the bathroom door. It is near the room’s front door, which is close to the room’s new ceiling.
I walk along the broken window to the far corner of the room. I try not to look out, down at the cracking pavement. I reach the section of wall beneath the bathroom door, and notice something painstakingly obvious, but somehow ignored by my muddled brain until now. The room is very spacious, at least thirty feet wide. And now, with the toppled room’s width becoming its height, the bathroom is impossible for me to reach.
I shout my wife’s name several times more. Finally, she answers, in her unbearably cute French accent that makes me love every word she says. “Scott, I’m in here.” Amid the breaking city, her words are barely audible.
“I know honey. You have to come out of the bathroom.”
No response. I repeat my words twice more, louder each time. After what feels like an excruciatingly long time, the bathroom door swings open, and Emilie pokes her head out. There’s blood on her forehead, and she’s paler than the bedsheets in the adjoining room.
The building shudders. Emilie disappears from view again, retreating back into the bathroom.
“Come here baby, you have to get out of there.” I have to shout multiple times before she reappears. We look at each other, and once again I realize something painstakingly obvious, yet ignored by my panicked brain up till now. How the hell was Emilie going to get down from there? The building shudders again. The building shifts. I lose my balance, and almost fall onto the window again.
Suddenly my mind focusses, and my thoughts become crystal clear. I analyze the situation quickly and dispassionately. I am going to die here. Either in this room or down on the pavement. And it will happen any minute now. I’m already on borrowed time. Had the building toppled in any other direction, my life would already be over. I am going to die, but the woman of my dreams still has a slim chance to survive.
“Reach for the door, Emilie.”
She doesn’t move. She keeps her terror-stricken eyes locked on mine.
“The front door of the room, Emilie. To the right, above your head. Open it. Open it!”
Emilie responds. She follows my command. It’s a stretch for her, but she’s able to reach the handle and pushes it down. The door falls open.
“Very good honey. Now grab the doorpost and pull yourself up.
She doesn’t move. The building groans and shivers again, like the last spasms of the dying.
“Move, dammit! Do it now!”
Emilie grabs the doorpost with both hands and swings out of the bathroom. She hangs suspended for a few seconds, high above me, and I’m certain she’s going to fall. I pray to God for the first time in my life that she doesn’t. She begins to move again, pulling herself up, kicking the air as if it gives her added purchase.
Gradually, she pulls herself all the way up into the hallway. She looks back down at me.
“Go honey. Run. Get out of the building. Go now!”
I see her eyes fill with tears. She opens her mouth to say something.
“Get out! Now!” I shout as loud as I can. I blow her a kiss.
Several seconds pass, and then her head disappears from my view.
I sit down beside the window. I visualize her running down the tilted hallway and then down the stairs when she reaches the part of the building that’s still standing. She has to make it out, she has to.
The concrete around me groans loudly, so loud it seems to come from inside my ears. The wall beneath me cracks, the window splinters into a million pieces, and amidst the glinting shards I am falling. I reach into the inside pocket of my dinner jacket and take out the scarf. The exact same one that brought us together a silk anniversary ago, which I would have given to her in a few hours, after dessert had been served. If the earth had not gone crazy. It had taken me months to find. I carefully unwrap it, as if I have all the time in the world. I stretch my arm toward the sky, holding out the scarf.
I let it go.
I smile. The great love story of my life ends exactly as how it began. With a silk scarf drifting on the wind.
My own story of London
I’ve been to London six times or so. It’s a great city to visit for art, architecture, food, parks, and plenty other reasons. One reason not to visit, as you might have heard any Londoner (or British person in general) complain about, is the weather. Compared to other places in the world though, London is actually a tranquil place, weather-wise. A little rain and cold can hardly be considered bad compared to the powerful forces nature can unleash.
Wherever I am, I always like to go up as high as I can. If there’s a tower, climb it. If there’s a hill, climb it. If staying at a hotel, get a room high up. If you get high enough, the view is always spectacular. Let’s hope it never gets too spectacular…