by Peter Fraser

Six hours on the highway brought me back into Spain from Lisbon. How can you get tired, just sitting in a bus, staring out a window? It’s not possible. I’d read that Lord Byron made this identical journey in 1809 and it took him four days, but then again, he was doing it on horseback. He arrived in Lisbon off the packet ‘Princess Elizabeth’. He brought one personal valet and two servants with him. He understood there were sacrifices needed to be made.

Byron entered a Spain that was in the process of being turned over by Napoleon. He wasn’t too keen to join in the defence of Iberia, so he left for Cadiz and then eventually sailed to Greece. Saville is mentioned in ‘Childe Harold,’ after publication it made him probably the first international literary celebrity. And the guesthouse where he stayed is still here. Number nineteen, Calle de las Cruzes.

My entry is a lot calmer. There are no legions of Frenchmen wanting to pillage the countryside. Although a financial crisis is threatening. Modern warfare is conducted in a different manner, the place is now being squeezed and plundered by anonymous bankers. Yet there seems to be no evidence that the people are building defences, to repel an invader. They cannot even see the approaching enemy.

I take a taxi to my preferred hotel. It’s in the old town, where the streets narrowed to alleyways, yet the driver has no intention of slowing down, honking and abusing pedestrians as they casually move off the road. They pressed themselves against the ancient buildings, with a genuine indifference, to let our rude passage progress. Then resume their map reading, their orienteering, trying to understand the irrational medieval grid of the place.

Yes, I begin to recognise the immediate area, we were in the right vicinity, I knew that cafe and that square, then the hotel  itself.  I paid the driver and even gave him a tip. I feel relief at the front door, anticipating room 305. There is a lightness in my demeanour, I feel safe, in a hostile world.

The manager himself was there, although he always seems to be, he raised his eyes as I opened the door. I recognised him, but there was no returned acknowledgement. He was most mature, perhaps even eighty years old, could that be possible? Dressed like a caricature of a British television barrister and was clearly a man in command. He belonged to an order of ancients that controlled most hotels and a steady mature bureaucracy that held the city together. It seemed the elderly didn’t want to retire, which left the younger generations contemplating migration.

“I need a room for to-night.”
I kept it succinct. There was no need to elaborate what I might actually need. It all goes quicker if he only concentrates on one thing.
He examined my luggage, scrutinised my clothing, then looked deeply into my eyes, he then crushed a piece of paper, threw it in an invisible waste bin on his right, repositioned the office stapler and began to study the computer screen. Finally, he spoke to me.
“One night?”
He asked without even looking up at me.
“Yeah. Well certainly to-night. I mean I might stay longer. We’ll see what happens. What do you reckon?”
“You. A reservation senor?”
Again, not bothering with eye contact.
“No. Don’t have one. Just showed up. As you can see.”

This information changed the entire sequence. I knew it would. He quickly looked up and studied me again, then contemplated my luggage. Or was he investigating my footwear? I’m not sure what he was looking for but my image held some secret knowledge. He crushed another piece of paper and threw it in a bin on his left side. I think he had a waste paper bin positioned either side of him, stereo bins, then emitted a deep sigh. His face returned to the screen. It was no easy procedure and his audience understood this as well. Although, I was confident he could do it. I mean I had seen him do this before. Several times. I had no doubt. He punched a secret algorithm into the keyboard, his concentration intense, but it eventually eased.  Then he finally offered me my room. The tension dissolved. We had come through the check in process together. There was a bond. A new relationship. We were now landlord and tenant. Again.

“Can let you have 305?”
“Yeah. OK. That’s just right. No. That’s great. That’s exactly what I want. I mean I expected it.”
I think I was talking nonsense.
It was the third time I had been through all this. I knew and anticipated the dialogue. I appreciated the minor strain of checking in. I understood my appearance would provoke some clerical drama, but I was sure a room patiently awaited my arrival.
“Your passport? Credit card?”

I had them ready. This is who I am. All the information you would ever need to know about me is in my passport and credit card. I could be identified in any part of the world with only these documents.
The manager had a luxuriant full head of dark oiled hair, very handsome, his coiffure way cooler than even a young Mick Jagger. Perhaps he was a retired footballer from Madrid or even an old matador that had survived or what about a redundant dramatic lead from the national theatre? Not impossible.

Then I wonder why I need to attach all that nonsense to him? He’s probably a career manager. A position he has held for fifty years. But he had the competence and efficiency to quickly check in a foreigner and understood how tourists had a low tolerance for time wasting. But I knew he secretly understood that I enjoyed the check-in procedure. There is only disappointment if your audience does not appreciate the theatrics. If the arriving guests have no idea of hotel clerical protocols.

“Is room 305. And here your wi-fi password. Must need it.”
“OK. Thanks. I know my way. I’ll be alright. And can you send up some white wine. Dry.”
“Water? Dry water? Senor?”
“No. Not water. Wine. Vino. Blanco. But dry. And a proper wine glass would be appreciated. If you can do it. Thanks.”
“Ah? Is done. With no complications. Away straight now.”

Once he had my credit card he switched with ease to the role of wine waiter. But it was my room. Room 305. Why did he always put me here? It did play on my mind. I could see there was hardly anyone else in the place. I didn’t care, I had grown accustomed to it. There was a view out the window to my preferred evening tapas bar. I opened the window and let the noise from the world below seep into the place. The bar was too crowded at the moment, but it will be just right in an hour. The wine arrived with a proper wine glass. I had my own cork screw. This world still used corks. I liked it. It suited my backwards vision of the world. There were no metal stelvin enclosures here, or anywhere else in Spain, that I had observed. We were prepared to keep all that out. Even if it meant buying cork from the Portuguese.

I unpacked a few things, connected myself to the wi-fi and enjoyed some of the wine. I couldn’t understand the label, but it was at the right temperature and most enjoyable. There was an interesting lifted fruit. If only I knew what kind of varietal it was.

But I was thinking food. Acorn fed Iberian jamon. Jamon iberico de bellota. Yes. I might even go with the one that had been cured for two years. And some red wine from a local vineyard. Although they had salted cod with potatoes that was most agreeable. I’d had that before and it seemed a reliable dish. Well I’ll have both of them. I am feeling hungry and the tapas made the effort with their food.

I knew there was a waiter there that could understand my minor needs. He was their English expert, adjudicating on all requests made in English. I wondered if he got paid extra for securing orders from these foreigners with their limited communication skills? Most places seemed to have a designated English interpreter, usually they were hopeless, but some could grasp what you were trying to say.
 I logged on and brought up the days emails. Nothing that required an immediate response. It seemed I was lost. Or the world had forgotten about me. I was not being asked to participate anymore. We seemed to be free of each other. 

The room was comforting, I think it was glad to see me. I had a spare hour. I might wash some clothes, or I could watch a bit of Spanish television, or I could just look out the window, at the alleyway and wait for my bar to surrender a spare table. These were the pressing issues I had to confront. And I had no intention of evading any of them. They were pitched right at my skill level. Someone understood my ability. All I needed was a bit of time. I’d come back and decide.  And then explain why I thought my choice was the right one.

About the Author:

Peter Fraser lives in Australia, enjoys wine and coffee, reading and writing and ah…travel. He published about fifteen short stories so far.