He was still dreaming when he woke up, or at least he thought he was. He did not immediately accept the reality and thought he was still in a long, high-ceilinged ward in a noisy, old-fashioned hospital. The light was very subdued and everything was very indistinct, but he was aware of a lot of activity. People were being moved on trolleys to and from beds, curtains were being drawn and reopened, long-coated bespectacled doctors, followed by small groups of anxious looking interns and nurses were moving rapidly from one part of the ward to another.
One group paused momentarily at the foot of his bed, examining a chart and conferring briefly, but without looking at him. He knew that he ought to get their attention for a moment and clarify his position — his friend was sure to be waiting outside, and if he could only get a message — but they ignored him and moved on to the next patient, leaving him to sink back exhausted on his bed and gaze at the high ceiling above him. He focused on a long-bladed fan revolving slowly, causing the string which hung from its centre to describe a wide, lazy circle just a foot or so above his head. As he stared at the fan the noises of the ward grew less distinct. It seemed as if the occasional groans and cries from patients in various parts of the ward were coalescing into one concerted effort designed to attract the attention of the peripatetic doctors, who by now had passed completely out of sight.
The voices of the patients became more rhythmic, their cries more insistent, and suddenly they were singing in chorus, antiphonally. He listened, fascinated. Gradually, one voice became predominant, the others reduced to less organized responses. Not only could he not understand the words, but he also realized they sounded quite alien, Eastern perhaps, sung in an extremely narrow melodic range. There was a quality of defiant complaint evident in the curious slides from one tone to another, interspersed with bursts of exultant shouting and clapping from the chorus, which now no longer seemed comprised of such vast numbers as he had at first thought. There seemed, in fact, to be but one singer accompanied by maybe two children’s voices, and the voices seemed now to be no longer in the room with him, but coming from somewhere outside.
He made a greater effort to focus on his surroundings. The fan, with its attendant string circling below in a vain attempt to catch up with the long wooden blades, continued to revolve slowly above him, making fuzzy shadows dance lugubriously on the high grey ceiling. The ceiling, however, now came to an end not twelve feet away from the end of the bed, against a similarly dingy grey wall. His eyes followed the plastered wall down from the simple cornice to where it was interrupted by a plain green panelled door. The ward faded from his awareness, faded indeed completely from memory. Instead it became apparent that he was in a rather small, if long, room, with a door at one end and his bed at the other. He raised his head a little and looked about in the gloom. To his left there was a window, shuttered from the inside, with more dull green paint peeling from the half-closed louvres. It was through this window that the singing was coming, now clearly from below. But below where? And what was this room? Remembrance of the ward flashed back. Was he perhaps in a private room in a hospital? He sat up further and decided that this was a surprisingly shabby room for a hospital. If anything, it looked like a room in one of those old prints of medical scenes from the Crimean War where wounded and dying were crammed incongruously into once grand residences; he half expected a nurse in a long Victorian dress, not yet recognizable as a nurse except for her white apron, to enter at any moment and insist that he lie down again. But no, this was no hospital, they would never allow such caterwauling outside.
He swung his legs over the edge of the bed and stood up, noticing with surprise as he did so that he was fully dressed. His shirt was twisted around his waist and undone at the neck and his jacket had been removed — ah, there it was, heaped up on a chair next to the shuttered window. He went over to the window to investigate these strange shutters. Why on earth were the shutters on the inside? It made the room look as if it were really an enclosed porch rather than an interior room. But the shutters were obviously part of the original design, the woodwork was all of a piece, and when they were opened a narrow shelf was revealed, wide enough to sit on. He pushed the shutters back as far as they would go, expecting the room to flood with light, but although it was clearly daytime, it was strangely dim outside, and the room brightened hardly at all.
The opened shutters had revealed a pair of tall casement windows. He pushed one of them open, knelt on the narrow window seat, and looked out. And then to his surprise realized he was not at ground level. In fact he was looking down on an inner courtyard several floors below: a small square of stone-paved space at the bottom of the shaft formed by four towering walls, one of which contained the window to his room. A combination of vertigo and claustrophobia overwhelmed him and he jerked back into the room to look for another window, to try to see out, really out. But there was only the one window. He lunged at the door and tugged it open. The door, however, opened onto an even darker and more sinister space than the window: an empty corridor made almost black by the comparative brightness of the light outside the window. Quickly closing the door he returned to the bed and sat down to gather his thoughts. A few deep breaths and he looked about him to see if any other possessions apart from his previously noticed jacket were in the room.
Any other possessions! Where was his suitcase, and his bag? And oh, my God! he thought, as rational awareness took over from the confused half-awake state he had been in up to this point, where the hell is Sarah?
He looked at his watch, but unwound it had stopped at a quarter-past four. A quarter-past four when? Another thought rushed into his head: he didn’t know about winding it last night, whenever that was, but he remembered now that he had not wound it the night they spent on the train. Perhaps it had stopped the following afternoon, as they were coming in to Madrid? — Madrid! Yes, that’s where he was, he was in Madrid — but how had he got here, to this room? He forgot for the moment about trying to figure out when the watch had stopped as panic surged through him with the realization that he had absolutely no memory of coming to this room, nor when he had last seen Sarah, and whether they had made any arrangements. Perhaps she was waiting for him somewhere. But where, and what the hell was the time? Was it early morning or later in the afternoon?
He stood up, willing himself to be calm, and went over to the window again. The singing, although flavoured heavily with flamenco-like cadences, sounded no longer so exotic. It was the voice of a woman singing lustily as she washed something in a large wooden tub. Two children were playing and tugging at her as she bent over the soapy mass. One of them appeared to have put something in the water and was trying to prevent the other from removing it. A second woman came out of a doorway he had not noticed before and said something to one of the children. The singing stopped and the two women burst into laughter as the smaller one fell in.
He smiled at the scene below and then looked up for the first time, and saw that there was only one more floor above him. The windows that looked out from the top floor onto the courtyard shaft were aglint with reflected sunlight and the whole top of the building was bathed in a fresh, clear light. It was the light of morning — or was it? he wondered, immediately doubting himself. This was unbearable; he had to find out what time it was, then find out what day it was… His mind ran on, anxiety verging on panic again. He had to find out where he was, and then find out where Sarah was. Oh, my God! he thought, as despair turned him momentarily cold, Sarah! Sarah, where are you?
He felt awful; but that didn’t matter now, what mattered was to get organized, make sure he had everything that was his that might be in this gloomy room, and get out of here, find reality, and find Sarah…
He shoved his shirttails back into his trousers, straightened his collar, and, reaching for his comb, looked around for a mirror. Ah, not only was there a mirror, there was also a sink, somewhat randomly fixed to the wall, and fitted with the oddest pair of taps he had ever seen. He turned them, twisted them, pushed on them, but nothing came out. Hmm! Spanish plumbing seemed to have been as idiosyncratically designed as the Spanish train system: no similarities whatsoever with what happened in the rest of Europe. Never mind, he could still comb his hair. He got his parting just right and tried out a smile in the mirror, but then winced as if this reflexive bit of vanity might queer his chances with whatever fate or fury it was that was holding sway over him in this damned room. Enough of this, let’s get out of here, he thought, there must be a street, some other people, someone who will know where I am. And deciding that apart from his jacket there was nothing else that was his in the room, he pulled open the door and strode out into the passageway.
The washerwoman was in full throat again. Her voice, amplified by the courtyard, reverberated up and down the forbidding stairwell he found at the end of the passage. It was only three flights down and he was soon at ground level wondering which way to go. To his left was the door to the courtyard, ajar, and through it he glimpsed a broad back humping up and down over the tub. He wasn’t sure why, but he didn’t want this woman to see him, so he turned right and stepped up through an archway into a narrow, carpeted passage that opened almost at once onto a little room with a cubby-hole cut in one wall, on the other side of which he saw with relief someone who looked unmistakably like a hotel desk clerk.
The clerk raised his bald head and peered encouragingly at Roger over rimless spectacles. Roger opened his mouth to say something, and raised his hand to gesture — but then remained speechless for lack of any appropriate Spanish. The fingers of his outstretched hand slowly went limp and curled into his palm, expressing his urgent dismay far better than any words he might have uttered.
“You are Señor Coulter?” queried the clerk, tentatively.
“Oh, thank God, you speak English. Yes, yes! I’m Roger Coulter. Do you…have you…?”
He stopped, not sure how to explain what he wanted. He wanted most of all to ask for Sarah, but he didn’t know how they had registered — if indeed they had both registered. He also needed to know where he was, and what day it was, and what the time was, and where Sarah was…but the clerk was waving a hand at him, conjuring him to silence. With his other hand he held out an envelope towards Roger.
“This letter is for you. You want also you passport?”
He nodded dumbly and took both items. He could see clearly that the writing on the envelope was Sarah’s, and with a sudden flash of guilty inspiration he knew what the letter must mean: he had been so drunk — the one thing she could not abide — she had abandoned him. His adrenalin-fueled energy was suddenly dissipated like air from a burst balloon. He mumbled his thanks at the clerk, who disappeared back into his cubby-hole, and turned to find his way out onto the street, seeing nothing more.
On the other side of the door the sudden noise, the blinding brightness, and the crush of countless people on the crowded street absorbed him at once into its tumult. All conscious impetus drained out of him. With the awareness that everything smelled and sounded differently here, he succumbed to the pain in his head: the throbbing nausea that was the hangover he had so far been too busy to acknowledge.
For the moment nothing else mattered; all other questions had lost their urgency. He allowed himself to be swept along, uncaring and unnoticing, almost comforted to be passively participating in this busy stream of life. Exotic smells continued to assail him, unrecognizable noise assaulted him, until at last, beginning to need relief, he turned out of the main press into a narrower street. In the relative calm, propped up against the wall of a building, an old woman sat in the shade with two basins of olives for sale on the ground before her. A little farther along, a one-legged man with one unseeing eye and one grotesquely empty socket was selling lottery tickets. Balancing himself precariously on a single crutch, his hoarse cry echoed back and forth between the buildings: “¡Lotería para hoyyyyyy! Lotería para hoyyyyyy!”
Shaking his head as he passed him, Roger stumbled on down the narrow street, which was lined with high, crumbling buildings festooned with wrought-iron balconies opening out from tall, shuttered windows, occasionally bright with the reflected sunlight that filtered down through gaps between one house and the next. He paid little attention to where he was going, and let the curving street lead him on, across narrower streets, through suddenly met quiet squares, down alleys, and out again into busier streets. The pounding in his head continued to demand attention. He thought he had better find somewhere to sit down, somewhere to get out of the street and the noise and the sun — perhaps a hair of the dog?
Paying more attention to his surroundings, he saw he was now in a street lined with small shops, and he began to look more closely at what they contained. One dusty window disclosed half-made suits draped over threadbare mannequins. Another was hung with tripe-like entrails. The next appeared to be some kind of law office, and was adorned with a worn sign reading ‘Abogado’. And then suddenly he was outside a bar, its wide doors open to the street, its interior glinting invitingly. He entered and crossed the sawdust-covered floor, dodging a variety of pendant hams, curved sausages, strings of onions, and numerous other unidentified objects fixed to the ceiling, and sat down on a bar stool. It all seemed quite familiar, but he was unable to tell whether it was where he had been the night before or whether it just reminded him of the innumerable cantinas he had dashed in and out of with Ignacio on the long train journey.
He asked for a glass of tinto and remembered how riotously they had all got off the train — at least he and Ignacio, that was. He seemed to remember Sarah having already disappeared somewhere with a porter and the bags, but then reappearing outside the station, to remonstrate with him as Ignacio insisted they celebrate their arrival. Now that he thought about it, he could remember different bars and numerous toasts, but he had no recollection of how they had got from one bar to the next. At one point he had been given an outrageously hot chili that had reduced him to complete speechlessness while Ignacio and the bartender had laughed until tears ran down their faces. He could also remember having shouted a newly learned toast, ‘¡Salud, pesetas y mujeres!’, in chorus with Ignacio and some other bartender in some other bar to apparent general approbation, but he could no longer remember Sarah as having been present. And he still had no idea how or when he had ended up in that room.
The cold tinto tasted good, and he ordered another one. The bartender pushed a plate of rolled-up anchovies at him, each one speared with its own little toothpick. He ate one and took out Sarah’s letter. He regarded it with about as much comprehension as he might have regarded a newspaper printed in Arabic. The individual words danced unintelligibly before him, and yet he knew without being able to read them that it had to be very bad news.
Another tinto and some more tapas and he felt better able to face up to things. He picked up the envelope again into which he had stuffed the letter, and noticed that there was something else in it. He pulled out the letter and shook the envelope. A luggage receipt and one of Ignacio’s visiting cards fell out. Well, that was thoughtful of her, he thought bitterly. How come she gets put up and I get dumped in a crummy hotel? No need to answer that one! She’s the one with the long legs. But I don’t remember old Iggy paying much attention to her.
He turned the visiting card over idly, and saw with surprise that there was a pencilled address scribbled on the back. It was the address of a pension. Doubt took over. Maybe she wasn’t at Ignacio’s. He had better read the letter again, carefully. He smoothed out the now crumpled sheet on the bar and concentrated. The writing resolved itself into Sara’s familiar neat hand:
I feel terrible doing this to you, but I’d feel more terrible if I stayed. I know it’s important to you to get the Castilian Suite written but it’s something you have to do — not me. I can’t just walk out on Daddy, not yet. Perhaps when you come back we can try again. At least he should have a chance to get to know you before we abandon him.
I’m taking the train back to Paris. Ignacio will take you to a hotel he knows. He’s written the address of a pension run by some friends of his family on his card. I’ll write to you there. Your luggage is at the station — I’ve enclosed the receipt.
Write something great. I know you can.
I love you,
One more tinto and his head hurt even less. So that was it. So much for the Grand Adventure. Without Sarah it all suddenly seemed like a grand drag. He could just hear Robbins, Camp, and Russell sniggering now. God, what a fool he had been to think that he would really be able to pull it off! Living in Spain with Sarah. It had seemed too good to be true. And it was. Now he was stuck with a filthy hangover in this unbearably hot city alone. Totally alone.
He realized that much of the idyllic vision he had woven about the joys of composing in Spain had been for Sarah’s benefit. He hadn’t really believed it all himself. But he had needed her to be with him to lend support to what he knew in the end would be a worthwhile effort. It was just that he wasn’t sure he could do it on his own. Alone. In a strange land. He had needed her not only because she was beautiful and he loved her, but also because she always knew what to do. She was so practical.
He picked up Ignacio’s visiting card ruefully and looked at the address pencilled on the back. Even as she left she had known what to do — while he had been carousing, out of his mind. He just didn’t know if he could do it on his own. For a moment he was tempted to follow her back to Paris, and then London, but he knew his bridges had been too thoroughly burned. His parents’ house was out of the question; he had made too much fuss about establishing his own independence after college. But then he had given up the flat he had moved into and sold his car. He had talked so much about what he was going to do, it would be too humiliating to reappear sheepishly before he had been gone even a week. He would have to stay. At least for a month or two. There was no way he could go back now before having written something. And as he thought of composing his heart sank even lower. How could he compose anything in this frame of mind? She had taken him too much at his word. Oh God, he didn’t want to be a composer, he just wanted to be with Sarah. Nevertheless, returning was impossible.
For the first time in his life he came face to face with the fact that the world did not revolve totally around him. It was as if he was ten years old again and instead of getting Christmas presents he had been told his parents were dead. The aura of security that had always enveloped him was suddenly gone, and he felt not only terribly vulnerable but also spinelessly impotent.
He flushed with shame, and then groaning he swigged down the last of the tinto, drowning out the thought of this appalling weakness as quickly as it had occurred to him. Hold on, Coulter, he thought with a bravado he knew was utterly false, heartache is one thing, but you mustn’t let the lady get you down. It’ll all look better in the morning. And then he remembered it was morning.
Wanting now only to go to sleep again and escape from this wretched nightmare, he decided to find the pension and hole up until he felt better and could make plans. He paid the bartender, and with much sign language and much waving of the luggage receipt managed to get directions to the station. He left the bar, relieved to have an immediate purpose on which to concentrate and thereby put the larger consciousness of his life out of mind for the moment. Two streets later he was hopelessly lost. A repeat performance of the ticket display accompanied by more mute gesturing got him a little farther.
After a while he found himself in a large square in front of an old, bullet-scarred church. He wound his watch and set it by the church clock, noticing as he did so more lottery sellers offering the chance of an alternative means of salvation to the insufficiently pious.
Nothing in this close and noisy neighbourhood seemed familiar, but oddly he was not in the least disconcerted by the strangeness. Rather he seemed to draw comfort from what felt like his privileged position of aloof alienation. Madrid and its inhabitants were unaware of the young Englishman, and far from feeding his distress their lack of concern lent him the strength that often comes to those in trouble when they see how trivial are their woes compared to the larger business of life.
Other clocks struck noon as he continued his erratic progress towards the station, his requests becoming more polished with each repetition. He learnt to recognize the word for station as the people he accosted — each saying much the same as the person before — grasped his predicament and gave him directions. After a while he no longer needed to gesture so violently; words sufficed. Thus absorbed in his task and thinking less about his hangover, his tiredness, and the empty feeling that Sarah’s letter had produced, he found himself eventually before the main entrance of the Estación del Norte.
Having retrieved his luggage he was once again recognizable as a traveller; his dazed demeanour marking him as lost to boot. Standing outside the station with no clear idea of what to do next he immediately fell prey to the solicitations of hotel agents, small boys attempting to give him directions or advice or perhaps just begging, porters eyeing his cases, and ten taxi drivers all shouting at him at once. And then, as if he had known all along what the next move would be, he produced Ignacio’s card, and pointing to the pencilled address on the back, got into a very low-slung taxi — quite unlike the sedately upright conveyances of London — and was borne rapidly away; exactly where, he neither knew nor cared very much. Sarah had put the card in the envelope with her letter, and so he regarded it as an instruction from her. Or at least, the last link with her, and as such he would follow its lead until once again he might find himself completely on his own. Maybe tomorrow he would feel well enough to think about going after her. But he suspected already he wouldn’t have the guts.
The journey was surprisingly brief. They drove a short distance along a broad tree-lined avenue, crossed another wide avenue, and then turned up a smaller steep street to stop outside an imposing but deteriorated double door adorned with a pair of impressive iron knockers in the shape of long-fingered hands clasping big silver-painted balls. High up, on the stonework surrounding the door, was a small blue enameled sign with white lettering which read:
4 o Drcha.
* * *
The Castilian Suite is available as eBook or Paperback from Blackburn Books