The three of us found it difficult to rise with the 10 a.m. alarm, bedding down as we did at four with the last bottle of wine. But that’s the way of it. Jules woke Ricard who woke me, and half awake, I wandered downstairs to the veranda where the hot coffee and the golden ‘Normandie egg’ waited for my morning hunger.
Outside Jules and Ricard were patiently waiting in the car, engine ticking, guitar in the boot, their eyes looking up from the closed windows of the Renault as I locked the chalet door. And as my seat belt clicked, Jules drove off and we were on our way to Vallfogona.
‘Twenty six rooms, plus toilets and kitchens,’ Augustin Molere had chirped down the phone when we answered the advert. ‘And only 500 Euros a month. And it’s yours for twenty years.’ We shook our heads at our good fortune and arranged to meet him outside the Hotel Regina in Vallfogona at noon the following day. ‘Too much indecision makes Johnnie a dull boy,’ Ricard had quipped, so we promised ourselves an early bed and an early rise, a nearly impossible task on a Saturday morning in Barcelona.
Two hours it took us to reach the village and find the hotel, not the one and a quarter that Augustin had said. Predictably he had left, gone home to his farm, leaving a message with the concierge to contact Ramon, a thick set six foot Catalan waiter who would find the time to escort us to the house that was advertised in the monthly Casas y Cosas, a rag bag of a magazine that offered everything for the curious.
We arrived at one, fighting our way to the reception desk between middle aged couples, who, at a glance, appeared older. A feeling, that’s all. Maybe it was the way they walked; elegant, confident, but with a trace of a stumble, or their look, which hinted of sadness. Nostalgia? And strange, but there was the taste of musk. Obscure. Like the perfume I remembered on my grandmother. Odder still was their dress, for the clothes they wore were chic, not off the peg, bought from an up-market store. And if the façade of the hotel was old stone, inside all was a mess of chintz and glitter. And mirrors.
The receptionist took her time, officious with her put on smile, and eventually she answered Ricard’s question of ‘is Ramon in the hotel?’ Five minutes later Ramon came by, smiling, eyes bright, who led us to Casa Montserat, it of the 26 rooms that had seen better times. Ramon left us to wander, to nose the place, telling us to remember to padlock the gate. ‘Just drop off the keys at the hotel,’ he called out as he disappeared up the driveway between the plain trees, back to his work at the tables.
God, the house reeked of ill feeling, the rooms naked of everything except stained mattresses and bare cupboards. And loneliness. And the walls were the grey paint of despair. The kitchens were no better. The toilets a mess. ‘C’mon, its not that bad,’ Jules said as she passed from door to door, but her voice said more than her words. She would check everything, check the plumbing, the electricity, the water supply, the roof, check every detail of the two kitchens. Even the sink taps were studied.
Ricard and myself had enough of the house, left Jules to her manoeuvres, and we lazily leant over the parapet of the first floor and looked down on the rubble of the veranda, at the metal chairs lying among rusted leaves, watching the smoke of our cigarettes drift in the hot air. A red squirrel scampered up and over the wooden fence and disappeared into the shadows of the pine trees. ‘It’s quiet. You can hear the hawks wings,’ Ricard said. Certainly there was peace, but it was a peace of the haunted.
‘Well it has its possibilities,’ Jules remarked as the three of us descended the outside staircase, out of the Casa Montserat and into the driveway, remembering to lock the gate as Ramon had requested.
‘Only Dracula would have seen its poss i bil it ies,’ I joked, putting the key in my pocket.
‘Men,’ Jules muttered, withdrawing the video from its bag.
‘Ah, the smell of the pine. Reminds me of my boyhood time,’ I said to Ricard as Jules followed, taping our progress, taping my Chaplin walk, then swivelling and recording the house that had brought us from Barcelona.
We sort of loped back past yellow and red painted houses, the rush of the burn to our left cutting the ground blue-grey in its watery path. Several ducks flexed their wings on the bank, quacking that sound of theirs, waddling comically from side to side, their huge webbed feet ridiculous to their body size. ‘Ducks out of water,’ I said to Ricard, but he didn’t get the joke and muttered something under his breath. Around us the valley hummed with bird noise, and I caught the drift of one, large, black, winging in under the green foliage of a plain tree which stood with others, a canopy against the sun, sentries to the driveway.
It was three o’clock when we returned the key, hungry, tired, but we decided against a meal in the hotel. ‘Gosh. Too many middle aged people pretending to be young,’ Jules said, which sort of registered, remembering my feelings of two hours ago. The foyer was trembling with them, and the dining room echoed with the chatter of their voices. And nobody smiled. Yet……
‘What? It’s a Spa Hotel?’ I said, leaning over, surprised, after Jules put the brochure down on the grass under the oak tree outside the hotel where we were resting. I picked it up and glanced at swimming pools, cleansing fountains, saunas, massage parlours, lists of cures for this, for that, and why, for it didn’t figure, but there was an advert for a boutique in Barcelona. And all the while the people passed by, some acknowledging our presence with a veiled look, a put on smile, careful to cloak themselves, our presence an annoyance which only later were we able to understand.
‘So, let’s go and find somewhere else to eat,’ Ricard said, standing up, Jules and me following, and we walked back over the bridge, walked past the red and yellow painted houses, back to the car which we had parked adjacent to an old farmhouse on the outskirts of the village.
The Renault was an oven, and we left the doors open and wandered down to the burn where Jules spotted some bramble bushes full with fruit which we greedily picked, filling the plastic bowl which Ricard had fetched from the car. Tired of picking, of being pricked, sucked dry with the burning sun, I wandered off and I guess I was lucky in spotting the sign with its blackboard of chalk indicating a menu for our hunger. Soup, salmon, gambas, calamares, ‘fresh’ fillet of lamb, pastries, and the price of 15 Euros, including wine, said enough.
The place was odd, that was for sure, about 200 metres along the bank of the river on the outskirts of the village. A fonda, an inn, and I caught its name above the door as I wandered up the steps and pulled the bamboo curtain aside. GARAFAN, it said, in faded letters.
Inside all was gloomy, but affected by some grace, certainly charm, and there were paintings hanging along the walls of the empty dining room which was open to my left. I counted seven tables, clothed in pale blue, decked in silver cutlery which glinted in the darkness. To my right there was a smaller room, bare except for a few chairs and a television mounted on the wall in the far corner. In front of me, a large black door stood like the entrance to the other world. I hung around, coughed, and scanned a map of the region which was pinned to a notice board.
‘Yes, can I help you?’ this voice rang out, soft, like a childs. I turned and an old lady, small, stood with her hands clasped, her luminous eyes staring up at me. I could tell she was once beautiful, as I could see she was timid.
‘Yes, we are looking for something to eat. Are you open?’
‘Open. Yes,’ she replied, smiling. ‘But the last call is at four. Or maybe five. Sometimes six. It depends.’
‘Fine,’ I said, checking my watch which said I had all the time in the world. ‘And you have what it says on the menu?’
‘Yes, what it says outside.’
‘Thanks. I’ll get my friends. I’ll be about five minutes,’ and the lady nodded and disappeared through the black door.
The draught of the hot air hit me as I walked outside. Looking up, shielding my eyes against the sun, I caught the head and shoulders of a man leaning out of an upstairs room, staring at me. He was perhaps in his late thirties, wore the hat of a chef, was unshaven. He caught my eye, waved, and immediately withdrew inside. A large crow, its coat glistening, perched itself on the roof, its head moving from side to side. Suddenly it swooped down, levelled just above my head, and disappeared into the wood opposite.
The heat ached in my head as I returned along the embankment to the car. So damned hot! And the stones glinted silver and it seemed as if the grass would burn.
‘I’ve found a place to eat. Looks odd, but comfortable, and the maitre seems nice, the friendly type’ I remarked to Jules and Ricard, who were idly leaning against the car.
‘Real food?’ Ricard questioned.
‘Real food,’ I nodded.
‘But odd? What do you mean?’ Jules asked.
‘Oh, I dunno.’ And I shrugged. Reflected. ‘Just something I guess.’
We sat at a corner table of dining room, the place to ourselves, the only sound other than our voices the soft shuffle of the maitre’s feet as she glided over the linoleum floor. And she took our orders with such politeness I’m sure she would have trembled if one of us questioned the menu. And the paintings loomed, dark brooding still-lifes that only served to enhance the texture of gloom. The meal, though, was perfect, the food flushed down with the finest house wine. And the conversation suited. And all the while the woman stood looking at us from the door which led to the kitchen, her face happy with our laughter.
‘Juan,’ Jules remarked as she sipped her coffee, while Ricard and myself inhaled deeply from our cigarettes. ‘You certainly chose well.’
‘Lucky,’ I replied, watching the blue-grey smoke from my lips curl and drift into the shadows, drift up to the ceiling.
It was 5.30 when we paid the bill, when we small talked to the maitre in the lobby, complimenting her on the chef’s cooking. Again she just smiled. I asked for the toilets and she pointed to the black door. ‘There is a corridor. First on the left,’ she answered, and her voice sounded lonely, disappointed even, as if the moment with us was over.
Inside all was smoky tiles, and strangely, there were no mirrors. And as I washed my hands in the deep china basin it passed my mind why there was no glass in the doors of the Fonda, in the windows either, the latter shuttered in dark green wood. Or in the toilet. ‘No mirror mirror on the wall, so I cannot tell if I am short or tall,’ I sang in a deep voice, looking at my shadow on the tiles as I dried my hands, the words echoing in the ceramic chamber.
Outside the heat had lessened and the sun dipped behind the high ridge of the valley. At 6 we were driving the twisting road back to Barcelona. Driving into drama.
Jules drove as usual, while Ricard sat and smoked and quietly brooded. ‘Jesus,’ I thought, as I sat in the back seat looking out at the grape fields speeding back to Vallfogona. ‘I’d never seen such beauty.’
I must of drifted off to sleep, I don’t really know, can’t remember, for journeys can be like dreams, sitting, moving, watching the world go by, two feet of the ground with the windows down, cocooned, cars speeding towards you, cars following, the countryside passing, thinking about nothing. Then from out of the silence I heard Ricard’s muffled scream. No, for if I think back, it was more of a screech, a painful sound to the ears.
‘Oh god. Oh no. What is happening to me. Look, I’m going bald. And look. The wrinkles on my face,’ he stammered, staring into the mirror of the sun screen. And he turned and stared at me. ‘Do you see? Do you see?’
‘Take it easy, maestro,’ I said. ‘The only change in you is the size of your eyes.’
‘No. Look. Look,’ and he pointed to his face. ‘My hair. It’s falling out. Can’t you see? Madre mia!’
‘Ricard. What are you saying?’ Jules asked, surprised, glancing at him.
‘My hair. And look at the wrinkles,’ he replied, his voice in delirium.
‘Calm down. Calm down,’ I muttered. ‘It’s all in your head.’
‘No, don’t joke Juan. See. Look,’ and Ricard put his face close to the mirror, feeling his cheeks, his head, with his fingers.
‘Ricard, I’m driving!’ Jules shouted, irritated.
‘Well I’m losing my hair. Stop the car. Look, Jules, stop the car.’
‘Ricard, you will make me lose my hair,’ she wailed.
‘C’mon you two. Stop bickering. Just stop the car, Jules, and then we can fix his wrinkles and get his hair back.’
‘I’m serious, Juan,’ Ricard pined, turning his face to the back seat, eyes on fire.
Jules found a turn off further along the way, stopped in the shade of some trees and switched the engine off . ‘Right. Let’s sort all this losing hair business,’ she said, and she opened her door and got out of the car, Ricard likewise, and I just sighed and followed
Ricard stamped his feet in the ground, his look demented. Jules took him aside and they talked, sat down on the grass. I left their privacy and wandered off behind the trees for a leak. I watched the steam rise, looked around at the fields green with grape. In the distance I could hear the sound of tractors taking in the harvest for next year’s wine. And the following years, for it was that time. Then I heard the shriek. Such a shriek that I hurried to the car, and there, sitting in the driver’s seat, was Jules, in tears, dabbing a tissue at her eyes, Ricard’s arms around her, comforting, whispering.
‘What the hell is happening?’ I inquired, nestling in the back seat, noticing that Jules sun screen was also down.
Ricard turned, shaking his head. ‘It’s true,’ he said. ‘It’s true what I said.’
‘What is true, Ricard?’
‘That I am losing my hair. That I have wrinkles. Now Jules is getting old before her eyes.’
This is crazy,’ I thought. ‘Two grown up people, sensible people, acting the child.’ But I had to laugh, to myself, for when you think about it………..
‘Look,’ I remarked to Ricard. ‘There must be a simple answer. The wine. Yes the wine, maybe it has gone to your heads.’
‘No, it’s not the wine,’ Jules sighed, her head in her hands. ‘You don’t see it. I didn’t see it in Ricard. He doesn’t see it in me.’
‘Ah, maybe too much sun. Or the brambles,’ I suggested.
‘No. No. It is real enough,’ and Jules turned to me, the tears rolling down her cheeks. ‘Look at my face, Juan. Look at my face in the mirror.’
‘But Jules, you look just the same to me. As you always have.’
‘Yes. To you. But what I see is what I see. The mirror doesn’t lie.’
‘It does in Blackpool,’ I joked again, which was a stupid thing to say.
‘Juan! This is serious.’
‘Well if it doesn’t lie, let me look into the truth,’ and I leant forward and looked into her mirror.
‘Christ!’ I shouted.
Jules took her time driving back to the city
We arrived tired, more tired than we had ever been, and it was nine when we slowly clambered the outside steps into the chalet. Jojo, the dog, wagged his tail, affectionate as ever, and Sam, Jules son, pushed his head round his bedroom door and said, ‘hi. There is a letter on the veranda table. Came by messenger only an hour ago.’
Nothing had changed, the furniture was as it always was, the television announced another bombing, the El Pais was open at the sports page as I had left it over the breakfast table. But there was that letter.
‘What is it?’ Ricard asked, his face quizzical, looking at Jule’s astonished face.
‘You will never believe it. Here,’ and she handed Ricard the letter. In the silence the clock ticked, Ricardo blinked, then he handed it to me, his eyes wide, his face now posed in reflection.
As my son and I will be returning to our village in the south, we have decided in the best tradition of Garafan to allow you the use of our inn for the next twenty years. Just remember to keep it the way it is. No mirrors. It is for the best. That way ageing is never dull. So boring. Don’t you think?
Today you made me so happy.
The keys are with Ramon.
HELENA ROSA CUERVO
Laying the letter on the table, I called Jojo over, tweeked his ears, picked up his lead, and man and dog walked out into the warm evening. Opposite lay the Mediterranean, asleep in a sheen of blue, the faint rush of the waves whispering ssssssssshhhhh, the sky a pale red, the late August dusk blushing. I wearlly sat on the beach, stretched my arms, yawned, Jojo at my side, on his backside, his front paws digging into the sand, both of us staring at nothing, staring staring staring at nothing….
‘Do you believe in mystery?’ I said to Jojo, turning to him, our heads level with each other. His ears pricked, he sort of smiled (a doggy grin), wagged his tail, his mouth open, his breath heavy, smelling of the raw cheese Sam had been feeding him, his tongue drooping down outside his mouth. ‘Go,’ I urged, patting his rump, and he bounded to the shore, splashing headlong into the water. I got up and walked south down the beach, heading for the bar that served the tastiest calamares this side of the Ebro, Jojo bounding after me in that looping gait of his, his dark coat glistening tiny flecks of silver………