The Indian bellboy was sweetness and courtesy itself as he took my bags and escorted me to my room. But even he, with his impeccable manners, could not disguise his horror at my appearance. The word dishevelled doesn’t do it justice. My hair was standing on end, my clothes were rumpled, my eyes were red and puffy — the result of all the crying and tossing and turning I had done on the eight-hour flight.
Understandably, the Oberoi is not used to welcoming guests who look as if they have made the journey in a cattle truck. Having known me for only 15 seconds, the bellboy couldn’t help himself: ‘Ma’am,’ he said, his brow furrowed in confusion, ‘what happened to you, ma’am?’
I toyed with the idea of saying I was just tired or suffering from hay fever. But then I decided to tell him the truth, on the basis that as India is my spiritual home I cannot help but tell the truth here and thereby throw myself upon the country’s considerable mercy in the hope that she will restore me to sanity.
‘I’ll tell you what happened to me,’ I said to the bellboy, as we proceeded through the ornate lobby. ‘I was born in 1972, and it has been one thing after another ever since.’
The bellboy looked distressed. ‘Ma’am, I am very sorry, ma’am,’ he said.
Once in my room, things started to look up. I worked out how to give the rest of my party the slip. I texted that I was sick and unable to come with them to sightsee and do other group activities. I needed to stay in bed until dinner.
When they had all gone out, I crept downstairs and installed myself on a sunbed at the side of the pool. And then the 2013 monsoon started.
There was only one other person sitting by the pool and that was a tanned, prosperous-looking man in Vilebrequin shorts talking into his BlackBerry and drinking beer. As the rains came down, he snatched up his towel and proceeded to a sheltered sunbed, but as there were only two of these and they were side by side, very close, I had a stark choice: give up on sitting by the pool, or hit on a stranger.
‘Excuse me?’ I said, for he was still barking orders into his phone in an unfathomable tongue, ‘can I sit here?’
He motioned at me to go ahead, and carried on talking. After a while he put his phone down and said: ‘Monsoon.’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Will it go on all day?’
‘Probably. Where are you from?’
And so we were away.
It turned out he was a tuna fish merchant from Belgium. Skipjack and yellowfin tuna, you understand. Not the tuna you’re not supposed to catch. The sustainable tuna. And after that had been established, I really had run out of questions to ask about tuna.
We sat silently staring at the monsoon beating down on the pool. He offered me a beer and when I said I didn’t drink, he bought me a virgin mojito. And then he said: ‘So, I’m here all alone, and it would be really nice if you would have dinner with me tonight.’
I thought of the sometime builder boyfriend. Neither boyfriend nor not boyfriend. Neither on, nor off. Neither waiting for me back home, nor not waiting. ‘Yes, why not?’
We arranged that I would call him at 6 p.m. when I had squared it with my party. Then I bid him farewell, for now, and went for a massage in the spa. After an hour lying face down as a Balinese lady pummelled me politely with her little fists and tiptoed apologetically up and down my spine with her tiny feet, I sat in a cubicle in the changing-room wondering whether I should do the right thing, or the wrong.
I took out my phone and selected the number of the girl in my party who was organising dinner and stared at it for a while. Then I called it. As the phone made the dialling sound, another phone just outside my cubicle rang.
As the phone was answered with a voice in my ear saying ‘hello?’, the same voice said ‘hello?’ outside the cubicle. The cogs in my brain almost didn’t turn fast enough to work it out in time. I nearly said ‘hello’. A millisecond before I did I stopped myself and pressed the ‘end call’ button.
‘Hello? Hello?’ said the voice outside the cubicle. Great balls of fire. She was sitting outside waiting for a massage. And now I couldn’t come out until she went away.
If this wasn’t an omen I don’t know what would be. And so that was how I came to stand up a Flemish yellowfin tuna merchant in Bombay.