Chapter 6

Wednesday 6th August

Another glorious morning. I had just awakened and was pulling on my shorts when Jack burst in to rouse us. I don’t know what we should do without Jack. He times our rising and our sleeping, our comings and goings with the regularity of a Sergeant Major. One of the many things I shall remember about this holiday is Jack’s welcome face appearing round the door as I wake and his dulcet tones saying;

“O.K. boy,  ten minutes to breakfast.”

I assume his use of the word “boy” to all and sundry stems from his RAF training.

We have been trying to get visas to go into Spain and this morning, at 10.30, the Powers That Be will deliver the fateful verdict.

To kill time, Scotty and I went into the old village to make some purchases and Scotty tried out his Spanish on an old man who ran the shop. Scotty was most offended when the old man compared his own English favourably with Scotty’s Spanish and I was subjected to a positively vitriolic outburst from the tame, or not so tame, Scot all the way back up the hill to the hotel. Clearly a very sensitive soul at heart. We inspected the village graveyard en route and were most irreligiously amused by the rabbit hutch methods of interment.  There were quite a few people out and about and Scotty insisted on our greeting them all with old world courtesy, including bullying me into giving a short bow and a hesitant “bonjour”.

We were stopped as we attempted to enter Andorra by two gendarmes, who desired to be informed of the whys and wherefores of our presence.  We had passed them on the way down without comment on either side but it seemed as though our return would be contested. Thanks to Scotty’s French, we passed without trouble, which was just as well, since neither of us had our passports with us. A lesson learned. We purchased stamps at the Post Office and then visited the shop alongside, where Scotty went into what I felt were excessive ecstasies over the quaintness of both the establishment and its proprietors.

Our exit from Andorra had been an impulse decision and, since Peter had given explicit instructions that everyone should be ready to depart at 10.30, I was becoming a little anxious, due to the kilometre or so of road that lay between us and the hotel, plus the fact that we had in the region of five minutes to cover it. Oddly, I was not sanguine about our chances of making it. We set off with a will, however, and made good progress. Fortunately, we met Joan and Carlos en route, who relieved our feelings (having first of all shaken hands punctiliously, of course) by telling us that the deadline had been put back to 11.30. We slackened our pace accordingly  and spent the walk in discussion of Spanish and French politics. Scotty would have started an argument, had not Carlos, remembering his duties as guide, philosopher and friend to Joan, excused himself politely and betaken the two of them thence. As a result, we forgot to ask Joan where she had been the previous night.

Back in Escaldes, we bought espadrilles and photographs for home, as well as some very nice ice cream. Peter was standing outside the hotel door and told us that we were required up for lunch immediately. When we were told we were indeed going into Spain, Scotty was in ecstasies. I almost expected him to burst into song. Something from “Carmen”, perhaps.

We handed our passports over to Peter and then went up into the hills for lunch. Bristol and Jeff were  lost in transit, so to speak so Scotty and I decided to return a little earlier than intended with some of the grub in order to find the errant couple and present them with lunch. Our efforts were in vain, however, as we discovered both absentees sitting on the hotel terrace looking disgustingly replete and quite unrepentant. They had both lunched with gusto at the Hotel Palacin after what can have only been a half hearted attempt to find us. They were shameless.

Francisco turned up a little later with a job for Scotty. On learning that we were going into Spain, he asked Scotty to collect his washing from his lodgings in Seo d’Urgel and bring it back with him. Scotty was in linguistic heaven while Francisco tried to show off his own abilities by flooding me and Jeff with voluble Spanish. Voluble or otherwise, it was entirely incomprehensible to us both.Jeff, possessed of a low sense of humour, denounced him as an “erudite bugger”, which Francisco took as a compliment.

About 3.00 p.m., we descended the stairs after a short snooze to await the arrival of Peter and also to writhe under the boisterous humour of Xavier, Madame la patronne’s brother. After some discussion, Madame insisted on confiscating my sheath knife and I came in for a double dose of Xavier’s attempts at humour. Peter arrived just before the bus, thus saving Xavier from my wrath and me from a life sentence for manslaughter. (No-one would have convicted me for murder, had they but heard one of Xavier’s “witticisms”. ) Peter looked like a man with a load on his mind, while the rest of us were singularly light hearted.

With the arrival of the bus, excitement was unconfined and we piled aboard like a lot of unruly school kids. In Andorra, we picked upa strange man outside the French Legation, before rapidly sailing through St Julien to the Spanish border, where a Civil Guard ushered us through into the Commandant’s office for a search. A tall, arrogant looking young officer led us past a saturnine man sitting in front of a picture of General Franco and regarded us with the utmost suspicion. One at a time, we were led through into a small office, where a diminutive soldier searched our pockets. I was most amused by the attention he gave to my R.A. syllabus and various membership cards I carry about my person on a regular basis.  The engagement list of the Man-York Club (Norman Hanks’ latest dream child) was opened with nerve wracking suspense and subjected to careful scrutiny. At last, having satisfied himself that I was not carrying a bomb in the top of my socks, I was allowed to leave.

In conversation, it transpired that, innocent of any evil intent though we all were, it was a strangely chilling experience and we all admitted to feeling guilty, though of what, none of us could say.

Re-embarking, we took aboard a Civil Guard, whom we instantly nicknamed Joe. Who knows why? He was a much more cheerful man than the Army officer and he also had a nice line in flashing eyes, which he used to excellent effect. This guardian of the peace drove with us into Seo d’Urgel and, when we reached the Customs Office, he accompanied Peter and Scotty into this sanctum to argue the toss with some apparently obdurate officials. The rest of us were left to mooch about outside the bus for 45 minutes, after which time we were properly browned off. Jeff became quite belligerent, not for the first time, and was prepared, I feared. To start his own private little war. We managed to calm him down a little and took his mind off the subject by regaling him with a couple of shaggy dog stories. Well, desperate situations call for desperate measures.

The highlight of this somewhat dreary passage occurred when a cart drawn by oxen meandered down the dusty street. Marjorie, bored stiff by the whole affair, decided to snap the procession and took her stand accordingly. Very obligingly, the driver stopped his team and the snap was taken. Whether or not stage fright was an influence I don’t know but, either just before, during, or just after the moment of snapping, the oxen, no doubt realising that a moment never to be repeated was at hand and being opportunists, promptly proceeded to satisfy the demands of an insistent nature in a crude, noisy and smelly fashion, with a very continental disregard for hygiene. The party broke up in some confusion amid ribald laughter and the oxen, sublimely unaware that they could well have blighted a budding photographic career in its infancy, moved bovinely on.  Marjorie, game to the end, recovered from her discomposure sufficiently to offer the driver a cigarette, which he took with excited cries of “Muchas Gracias”.

When Peter, Scotty and co finally turned out, somewhat the worse for wear, we thought, we had added a dapper young man and (much more important to the male members of the party) a glorious blode with a figure like Betty Grable and all the appurtenances thereto – a poem. Her roving eye would have provoked a saint to ungodly thoughts and Jeff immediately fell like a ton of bricks, grovelling, metaphorically speaking, at the fair one’s feet. And who could blame him? We discovered that her name was – what else? – Carmen and she was present in the capacity of interpreter. Her decorative qualities were of far greater value, however, as Jeff confirmed with every minute spent in her company.

Our first port of call was the Cathedral and we were led through its magnificent interior by a priest whose knowledge made him useful to some of the party, in addition to Carmen’s meagre English. It has to be said that it was a good job she was decorative, as her usefulness was quite limited. I am not prone to enthuse over churches and I cannot rise to raptures, like Scotty can, but even I could not help feeling that the Cathedral of Seu d’Urgell was the most beautiful building I have ever seen. Jeff and Carmen flirted noisily in front of the altar while the priest led one or two of the more sacred minded into the Chapel of the Holy Sepulchre to pray.

Leaving the Cathedral, we besieged a local fancy goods shop and made extensive purchases, leaving the poor woman quite bewildered by this sudden upturn in trade.  Ian returned from Francisco’s lodging and promptly dumped the Spaniard’s washing, a huge brown paper bagful, into my arms. Since Ian was our unofficial interpreter, it was obviously essential that he was given plenty of freedom so I didn’t grumble – much.

Sonny Boy, as we had by now nicknamed our male guide, led us into the Hotel Mundial, where we drank cognac at little tables and felt very continental. As we sat there, Scotty came into view, carrying ice cream and I was immediately dispatched, armed with the necessary words “Tres Lelados” in search of more. A bunch of girls laughed heartily as I walked up, as well they might, since my combination of stocking cap,  grey shirt, khaki shorts and heavy boots was no doubt an arresting sight and one of the first of its kind to be seen in Seo. I ordered the “Lelados” practically without a qualm until, coming to count my money, I discovered I had only a 100 peseta note to pay with. I proffered it with little hope and was not surprised when the ice cream vendor shook his head and burst into voluble Spanish. Feeling extremely foolish, I made a gesture which I could not even have identified myself and made to leave. Before I could move I was grabbed by the man and a torrent of Spanish assailed my ears. I turned sick with a combination of embarrassment and fear, with a horrible presentiment  that I was about to be clapped into a dirty Spanish jail. However…

I was just contemplating making a mad dash for it when, looking up, I discerned  what could only be friendliness shining from the man’s eyes. He thrust the sticky ice cream into my hands and, unbelievingly, i moved away, just remembering to give him a couple of “Gracias” as I did so.  Surely, I thought, this was without precedent. Here was I,  a strange Englishman, being trusted by a native ice cream merchant, a notoriously untrusting race, in a country where the English are reputedly far from popular. I walked back to the Hotel Mundial in a dream, borrowed the necessary pesetas, and returned to pay up. By the time I left him, we were firm friends and I was tickled pink by the entire exchange.

We then visited the Old City. Here we were stopped by a handful of extremely youthful looking soldiers, who forbade us to go further. Sonny Boy had to dash back to the guard house to get permission from the Commandant. We were waiting very impatiently, when the Town Crier appeared and made a proclamation. Who knows what he said? But it was loud, I’ll say that.  Sonny boy, breathless, returned with the necessary permission and we proceeded on our way.

We sauntered around the walled city for quite a while until someone noticed the time and then it was a mad rush back to the waiting bus. Stopping outside the office of the Chief of Police, we politely shook hands all round with Sonny Boy, Carmen and various other police officials and menials, including, I began to suspect, many of their family members and passing strangers, until it looked as thought the night was going to be spent in leave taking. Finally, Joe was shoved in with us once more and, with final shouts of “Hasta La Vista”, we rumbled off into the dusk. At the frontier, Joe shook hands all round, again, gave us a last flash from those eyes of his and then away we went with a rattle into friendly old Andorra.

Back at the Hotel Pla, Madame was rather annoyed with us (It was 10.00 p.m. by now) but they had saved supper for us so apparently we could consider ourselves forgiven.


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