When you arrive somewhere at night you cannot have a true idea about where you are. Tired, dirty, and with an aching body, my only desire was to find a place to sleep, somewhere safe, and the rest could wait.
It was well after midnight when the truck finally stopped at what seemed like a large parking surround by a few single story buildings, one of which being the inevitable truck stop bar. They would have rooms, but that really was the last place I wanted to stay. Absolam pointed down hill, waving towards a broad road that went in the direction of some buildings and a very faint light, perhaps the beginning of the town.
There was a slight freshness in the air and just the tiniest hint of salt. It was a faint sea breeze bringing a welcome coolness. However limited, it was a pleasant change. It seemed almost to stop at the parking, as if it’s strength could take it no further into the desert.
I said goodbye to Absolam, turned and made my way towards the distant glow. Once standing under the light, I could see I was in a street with buildings on both sides stretching gently down hill, presumably towards the coast. A square red sign above one of these buildings announced ‘Pensión Gaia,’ and there was a light on inside the large wooden front door.
A tall thin man with greasy black hair, moustache and white shirt greeted me with a broad smile revealing a shiny gold tooth. For some reason, without explanation, he managed to convey an air of gentleness and trust. That is something I had rarely come across. After announcing the price of a room, he took a large key hanging on a board behind him, the key had a short chain with a gold coloured or maybe brass ball hanging at the end. I saw later the room number on the key, thirteen. Now often, I know, hotels would skip that number for obvious superstitious reasons, but not here. The hostel had twenty two rooms, I noticed when he took the key from the board, and number thirteen was not skipped.
He handed me the key and asked if I would like some soup. That sounded good, I hadn’t eaten in a long time. It’s chicken he told me, Caldo tlalpeño, he smiled and left. I looked around the room, saw there was a large metal framed bed as well as a smaller one in one corner. The ceiling had delicate embossed plaster work, a centre rose and going two thirds of the way around the room, framing the window. I laid my bag aside and sat down on the bed, which twanged metallically like the plucked strings of some bizarre instrument.
A knock at the door announced the return of the man. He entered and placed a hot bowl of soup on a little table next to the wardrobe. He laid a spoon beside the bowl, turned, smiled, and left, closing the door behind him. I wondered for an instant that it might be drugged, should I eat it? But my impression when I arrived here was that this place, and the man at the desk, were safe. I think first impressions count, although you can never be certain of anything, I decided to trust my instincts.
When I’d finished the soup, and it was good, not like the last truck stop in Aramberri, I was so tired I didn’t even bother to undress. Just kicked off my shoes and crashed out on the bed. A bed that seemed to complain at my lying on it, but I paid no attention to the squeaks or even the odd springs that prodded me in awkward places. I fell into a deep sleep almost immediately.
I recognised the house straightaway, the street, the little front gardens with their neat walls and privet hedges. I saw my arm reach out and move towards a hedge. I deftly picked a tiny green and yellow leaf, pinched it between my thumb and forefinger, extended my arm through the air holding the leaf flat out in front. Moving up and down, gliding, banking left, then right, as I walked to school.
It was a plane, a space ship or a racing car, taking whatever form my imagination wanted it to be. It was kind of aimless, but I was in no hurry to arrive back at school. Not because I disliked school, although sometimes it scared me, no there was just plenty of time and that allowed my thoughts and imagination to invade my head.
It let me to think about Demitri. We would be in class together all afternoon and maybe I could sit with him. No, that wouldn’t happen, he and Georgio always sat together, but I could sit nearby. I wanted to ask him if I could see him over the weekend. Maybe Saturday after football, we were both in the school team. I needed to see him, I had things I wanted to know.
That’s all I remember, I had things I wanted to know. I was nearly at the road to turn down for school. I’d crashed the plane and watched as the tiny leaf fluttered to the ground. I don’t know why, but I couldn’t turn to go to school. I was trapped, the only choice was to go on past the turning and try to get back. I knew that would never happen, and I was right. I walked on past the turning and there was no way to get back. I just kept going, getting further and further away. I was starting to panic, I would be late for class, I wouldn’t see Demitri. Things always happened like this, I would never arrive.
I woke up with a jolt, just like emerging from underwater and gulping for air. I sat up in bed and felt the sweat on my body. I was exhausted, I couldn’t remember falling asleep. Suddenly a feeling of panic swept over me, ‘had I locked and blocked the door?’ I turned to look at the tall double white doors with their wood panels and peeling paint. Nothing was blocking the handle. Then I realised it was a round door knob. You can’t secure a door which doesn’t have a proper handle to wedge a chair underneath.
I touched myself, bringing my hands one to each side. I was in a strange state of mind, but I was here, awake, I must have slept badly.
Light was trying to pierce the darkness of the room, it crept around and between the tiny slits in the old wooden shutters that were closed outside the window. The type of shutters that you could vary the closure by manoeuvring the lames up and down. This must have been a very elegant building at some point to have such features and fine decoration, but now everything was a mere shadow of that past and the shutters no longer functioned.
I opened the window to see if I might let some air and light into the room which had become, if it hadn’t always been, choked by a stale atmosphere. I pushed open the shutters, securing them back against the outside wall. The room became illuminated in a broad beam of light, broken by dainty swirling patterns of dust. I smelt that same faint salty odour that I had noticed when I first arrived. There was an almost imperceptible breeze, only capable of swirling the dust in the sunlight.
I was tired and my body ached, I felt dirty and badly in need of a shower. I thought that would at least wake me up and make it possible to pursue my quest to find El Cuervo de Plata. Somebody had to know something, this was after all journey’s end.
The shower was old and worn just like everything else, but it was clean. I allowed the cool water to do it’s best to revive my body and mind. I washed away the grime and dirt that had glued itself to every part of my body.
It must have been nearly midday when I left the hostel and made my way further down the hill, inevitably towards the sea. Any breeze that remained could not do much against the intensity of the sun which beat down from a totally clear blue sky.
Before me was the old city. The large reddish stones of the buildings formed an impenetrable wall, broken only by a single round archway. Once inside the scene was completely different. People moved about their business on the narrow streets, and it was noticeably cooler, the sun could not find it’s way here.
A stranger is always obvious, you can never be invisible when you are newly arrived. So it was no surprise when a young boy grabbed at my shirt sleeve. “You looking for something Señor?” He looked up at me as he posed the question, his little brown hand still holding my arm. It’s the sort of question that leaves open a vast panorama of responses. Indeed I wanted something, but was it the same thing as this boy had in mind?
There was a silence between us. An odd moment where I turned to face him, looking at him; somehow trying to pierce the cloud of not knowing how to respond, seeking any clue that his appearance or expression might offer. The buzz of sound from the other people in the little street flowed around us like water around an island.
“You come with me Señor,” his eyes were bright green lanterns beckoning to some unknown place.
He led me away down the street gently pulling on my arm, looking at me occasionally, steering us through the hustle and bustle. Normally I would pay close attention to where we were heading. But either due to my weariness, or because this boy was just a child, I don’t know which, or why, I surrendered any resistance.
The old town was a maze of passageways and streets, some large, some very narrow, all interconnecting like a giant jigsaw. What a thought, how odd? Just as I surrendered my destiny to this child, my mind suddenly divulged the secret. It was a jigsaw, a jigsaw of a thousand pieces, an immense task to complete. It begged the question as to whether it was possible to complete such a task, whether all the pieces would ever come together to reveal the whole?
The door to the restaurant was tiny, I had to bend my head as he led us in off the street, but once inside it gave way to a spacious, if dim, room with tables and chairs around a middle part which was empty. Empty, just as were all the tables and even the long curving bar counter to the left.
We went straight through towards an equally large open terrace, also empty, broken up by twisted olive trees whose tiny dark green fruits where scattered on the ground surrounding them. These trees gave no shade of any consequence, but nearly the entire outside area was covered with a lattice work of some climbing plant which offered large orange flowers and protection from the sun.
It was here that I noticed two things, first we were high above the coast over which the terrace offered a magnificent view. A low whitewashed wall delimited the boundary with the smooth enormous gently curving grey rocks that dropped away slightly, then must have descended in an abrupt precipice which gave the view of the sea below.
There were four figures seated at a table off to the right, this was the next thing I noticed, as the child led me across the empty terrace. I immediately recognised Absolam, who turned his head and nodded a greeting as we approached. Then I was shocked, because the boy I’d seen seated opposite Absolam, looked up. Our eyes met, I stopped dead in my tracks, my arm followed the child who still had hold of it, but my body refused to move.
It was Jabez. How? I don’t know, it’s impossible, but there was no denying the boy seated opposite Absolam was Jabez. Questions vied for attention in my head: how did he get here? That was a mystery, it all comes back to nothing being how you think it is. Jabez was after all a helper, Absolam was a messenger, or was it the other way around?
Who are these other two men sitting at the table? I couldn’t think anymore, my brain was about to explode. All I could do was to stumble towards the table, and I had to sit down, the boy helped me.