I am, generally speaking, a fastidious and overanxious guy; but fundamentally lazy. As a result, I go for the known, tried, and tested; rarely experimenting, and thus avoiding troublesome surprises (what a bore).
When I moved to Dubai, I was given the task of finding and arranging suitable joint ventures. To my great good luck, I managed to land a joint venture with a Dutch company after only a year of knocking on doors of several European companies. Dubai was an unknown entity in the early 70’s and it was really a hard-sell and I had to use all my magic tricks. Soon, I was travelling four times a year to Holland to help modify the technology to suit the Middle East conditions.
In those days KLM was one of only two major airlines serving Dubai (Emirates was yet to be born). Non- stop flights with an extraordinary attentive service, with non-stop champagne, great food, and fast airport clearance (ten minutes tops) what more could a man like me want?
I discovered that the airline owned some top-class hotels under the Barbizon name in Amsterdam. Obviously transfers to the airport were free. I started using the KLM hotels – particularly at the centre of the city. Very soon, I had my routine pat. Land at Schiphol, clear immigration and collect bags and be in the bus in ten minutes and be in the KLM hotel at the centre of Amsterdam in max 25 minutes – Amsterdam is a neatly planned city. Check in at the hotel desk, park my bag, step out and walk around in the diametrically opposite weather – where Dubai was hot and humid, Amsterdam was cool and dry (when it is not raining). I fell in love with the city. I recall going ga ga over the lush green everywhere – my Dutch host would say: ‘but its only grass’. Little did he know that evolution designed our hearts for the poetic greens.
On one trip when I arrived at the hotel, I was informed there were no rooms, although I had a confirmed booking. I waved the confirmation in anger. They were sheepish and after fidgeting for some minutes were frank enough to say they had goofed up. I became upset at them, but they took it on the chin and said they would find me a room in another nearby hotel. It was very cold, it was raining, I was tired, and the thought of traipsing to another hotel did not sit well. So – (I am shamed now) – I made a scene. I did not want to go to another hotel. I wanted them to deliver on their commitment. Somewhere unconsciously I was perhaps showing my power – that of a regular loyal guest who demands extra service.
There was some consulting behind the desk and the manager was called and after another huddle they finally said they would give me a room.
Hotel: Sir you are a valued guest so we have decided to give you a room for the first two days. Then move you to another room that is becoming free by then. The room we are giving you is currently rented out but the guest is away for two days. So please excuse all the stuff in the room. You can keep it to one side. It will be for just two days, sir. I hope you won’t mind.
Me: The guest won’t object to someone using their room?
Hotel: No sir, it’s a permanent guest. We will call and explain.
Me: OK then, I accept. So long as you will make sure I get a new room in two days.
Hotel: Yes sir. Sure sir.
I walked up to the room with my trolley bag (bell boys are rare in Holland) relieved that I was saved the cold wet journey to an unknown hotel. Although I had been travelling to Europe for some time, I hated it when it was wet and cold. Dry cold was OK.
When I opened the door of the room, I was hit by a scene that stopped me in my tracks. A clothesline was strung across the room and ladies’ underwear was hung out to dry. Bras and panties – or were they thongs? I can never tell. The room also had a dense fog of perfume. Free perfumes, I thought, a bit unkindly. A few small cases were in a corner. But it seemed to me that a mistake had been made, so I made my way back down to the reception. They explained that the room they had given me, was a room of a KLM hostess – apparently KLM had several rooms on permanent booking for their cabin staff. Since mine was an emergency, and since I had made a scene (I could see it in their eyes) they gave me her room since she was away for two days. They said they would inform her.
I returned to the room not knowing quite what to make of the situation. A strange woman’s room (let’s call it a bedroom). My bachelorhood meant I had never given feminine underwear second thought. And now I had lots of it in my face. But I knew I had invited this by my refusal to go to another hotel. So, despite vague feelings of being one of those dirty voyeurs, who break into female rooms and wear female underwear and lipstick, I decided to ignore the situation.
I took out a book. But my eyes strayed every so often to the clothesline. How does one make sense of such a (karmic) event? That it was time to get married? Just to know a thong from a n underwear? Nah, the cosmos was not telling me any of those things? Things or thongs?
I decided to treat the situation as a kind of dream. I say this with complete honesty that I dreamed that night of nothing but the chemical machines I was buying and there were no strange visitations in my dreams.
When after two days I was moved to the free room, I felt grateful to the woman whose room I had used, so as a token of my thanks I left a box of chocolates with the reception to be sent up to her room.
When I returned from work the following evening, I was informed by the reception that my chocolates had been duly delivered and the person wanted to speak to me and would I call her room please? I was worried – did I send too small a box, or maybe too large? I was new to this choc giving tradition in Europe and was fearful it might seem too forward to send chocolates to a female stranger. Anyway, I dialed the lady and she was pleasant to speak to. She said it was not necessary to send anything – after all the room was not being used. She said she would like to buy me coffee in the lobby and would I meet her in half an hour?
Sheila – that was her name – was a tall gorgeous woman; very tall as many Dutch girls are, and she was still in her KLM uniform. She had just returned to the hotel. She broke the ice by laughing at my being dumped into a female den – surrounded by female things. She hoped, she said, I was not too damaged. I said, with fake insouciance, that I was a bachelor and so used to new experiences.
The hotel manager saw us chatting in the lobby and ordered some coffee and cakes to appease two very loyal customers.
Our conversation was the usual trivia between strangers: She – where are you from? Have you been to Holland before? How do you like the country? Is it too cold and wet? And Me – How long have you been flying? What countries have you been to? What are your interests?
That last question triggered something nice. She said she was interested in art and I said, me too. And I fished out photos of my paintings from my wallet (enclosed) and she went quiet, very quiet. Then she said, have you been to the museums here? and I said, no, but I would like to. So, she fixed up to take me museum-visiting on her day off.
That visit led me to inviting her for dinner and thus we became cheek kissing friends.
My travels continued apace and between trips, life took a turn for the better and I got married.
My new bride was fun and we hit it off well. Her curiosity was matched by her sharp intelligence. After watching me zoom off frequently on trips to Holland, my new bride said, “I am accompanying you on your next trip,” – just like that! I was flummoxed – not that I did not want her to come, but how would I convince my boss? Companies frown upon taking your wife with you on a business trip. She pre-empted my objections by calling up the boss and asking if he objected to her accompanying me. She would pay for her share, she said. Poor guy, what could he say? I booked immediately the fights and the hotel, quite automatically, without a second thought.
When we landed in Holland we were met by my Dutch colleague and he did a short tour of the beautiful countryside including the tulip fields – which is a fabulous sight for any first-time visitor (Photo enclosed). My new bride was impressed and said with joy, ‘no wonder you keep visiting here so often – I would do the same’. Having a wife accompany you – I learned over the years – to European business visits automatically makes the host arrange dinners, where his wife can join too. And then his corporate credit card buys the best wines and best food. But on that first visit my new bride’s opinion of her husband quickly went up through the roof.
On the fourth or fifth evening we were sitting in the hotel lobby having coffee when I heard my name being called out aloud from a distance. It was Sheila with a grin as wide as the Mississippi. She came across quickly on high heels and as I rose to greet her intending to introduce, she gave me a hug and a cheek kiss. I disentangled myself, and introduced my new bride.
Sheila: Oh! how lovely! So, our Casanova has got married, has he? Nice, to meet you. (She shook hands). Must have been recent since Mahendra has never spoken about you.
My Wife (MW): He hasn’t? Why would he?
Sheila: You are so lucky to have him. He is so kind and charming. And great company.
MW: Apparently too charming. He seems to spread it liberally. charm.
Sheila: Good to meet you, ma’am. Hope to meet you properly next time; I have to rush now. Have a great time in Amsterdam. Ciao.
After she had gone there was a long silence. I knew it did not look too good.
After a while MW spoke.
MW: I was wrong – it is not the natural beauty of Holland that brings you here so frequently. But other beauty.
Me: No..no.. it’s nothing like that. She is just a casual acquaintance. You know I fly only KLM. And she is a KLM hostess. I hadn’t realized that we would run into her. And please believe me, she is as friendly with others too. It’s her hostess profession.
MW: So why didn’t you tell me about her.
Me: It sort of slipped my mind. Plus it never came up.
MW: Have you looked at her? She is a tall blonde goddess. Maybe it’s like the fricking Sun that blinds you if you look directly at it.
I had no defense. My conduct was on the up and up, yet I felt guilty. But I froze with my next thought: what if MW were to find out about the lingerie and perfume den? Would that finally cook my goose?
There was again a long awkward silence.
MW: OK I am letting you off this time. I know you, never in a million years will you get a girl like that. But next time onwards, I want to know about every female who you befriend, and whose cheeks you kiss. Even if it’s someone’s grandmother.
I was relieved. But I realized there and then, that my lazy laissez faire lifestyle was as good as dead. Too risky from now on to tell the truth.