The International Writers Magazine: One Morning in 1951
Up On The Roof
I was taking mid-morning tea on the Terrace of the London Club in Barcelona when I met George and Clementia Courland. I had taken a copy of The Times from the newspaper racks in the lounge outside to read in the spring sunshine.
It was always good to catch up with news from home and I had been looking forward to enjoying a pot of the real English tea the Club served.I was on my second cup when George Courland had come to my table. Even through the pages of newspaper print I was aware of his close shadowy presence but thought he just might be one of those irritating ex-pats who cannot pass an English newspaper abroad without desperately wanting to read and comment on the headlines.
I lifted the outstretched newspaper up higher and held it a bit closer then carried on reading, hoping whoever it was would soon get the message and go away. But when I felt the front page of the newspaper being gently lifted up, I quickly snapped it down, there in front of me stood the stooped figure of George Courland. He was wearing a crumpled light coloured suit over an open necked white shirt and what looked like a pair of well worn and sun bleached tennis shoes without any socks. The sun had reddened his face and his thinning fair hair was insufficient to prevent him from burning the top of his head. He looked to be about forty years old but he could well have been younger as thinning hair usually ages men prematurely. He was holding up both hands as if the newspaper had been on fire and he’d just burnt his fingers.
‘Sorry to disturb your morning read Old Man’, he said apologetically. ‘Just wanted to see the date. It’s the 17th isn’t it?’ He had a syrupy Mayfair accent that seemed out of place with his shabby appearance.
I turned to the front of the newspaper making sure I took more time than was necessary.
‘Yes, you’re quite right. It is the 17th of May,’ I said sharply, ‘nineteen-fifty-one,’ to further show my annoyance at being so rudely disturbed.
He held out a thin damp hand and pulled a flat smile across his sun flushed cheeks.
‘George Courland and that’s my sister Clementia over there,’ he said, pointing over to a tall fair haired girl in a light blue dress who was leaning over the terrace balcony looking down at the street below.
’Pleased to meet you Mr Courland’, I lied.
‘You can drop the formality, it’s George; my friends call me Georgie. Listen old thing,’ said George. ‘I’m really sorry to disturb your tea and all that, but I, that is we, wondered if we could have a quick peek at that newspaper you’re reading.’ He paused briefly before adding as an afterthought, ‘Only when you’ve finished, mind.’
‘Why not,’ I replied, ‘it belongs to the club, so anyone can read it as far as I’m aware, but only one person at a time usually does where I come from.’ I was still cross with him and wanted him to know it.
‘I meant next’, George said with just a hint of wounded sarcasm as he turned and walked back to where his sister was still looking with even closer interest down at something going on in the narrow street below. As he stood next to her he put his arm around her waist and pulled her gently towards him. They looked more like newly weds on honeymoon than brother and sister. He must have told her about my abruptness as she turned around slowly and glanced nervously over at me a couple of times. The second time she looked over our eyes met and she smiled weakly raising a well manicured hand in apology.
She was a pretty girl and I could not help noticing the fashionable cut of her spring dress, which contrasted sharply with her brother’s scruffiness.
I made a big show of flicking the newspaper back up and tried to pick up from where I’d left off reading but it was hopeless, I was still annoyed with George Courland for interfering with my morning. But then, Clementia’s smile and apology, half hearted as it was, had softened the edges of my irritation. I closed the newspaper, folded it neatly in two and put it down on the table and placed the tea pot on top to stop it from being blown away in the stiff breeze that was now coming off the sea and cutting across the terrace.
The Courlands were both now looking down into the street. Something was catching their attention and they looked to be getting quite agitated. Clementia was clutching the sleeve of George’s jacket tightly and was burying her head into his shoulder whilst he was reassuring her with gentle pats on her back. They certainly were a strange pair and I wondered what had brought them both to Barcelona.
It was nearly time for me to leave anyway as I had reserved a seat on the early afternoon train up to Monserrat where I planned to stay at the Monastery for a few days using the isolation and peace and quiet to clear my head of a few things that had got a bit out of hand back home. I finished the tea and picked up the newspaper from under the pot and took it across the terrace to where the Courlands were standing.
‘Do you still want this or shall I put in back in the lounge? I spoke loud enough for them both to turn quickly away from the balcony
‘Thanks awfully,’ George said, ‘you in a hurry or can we offer you a drink?’ George seemed genuinely to be trying to make amends and it would have been churlish to continue to be annoyed with him.
‘Very kind of you to offer, but I’ve a train to catch’ I said, making a deliberate show of checking my watch.
‘Going anywhere nice? Asked Clementia, ‘I hear that Seville is beautiful this time of year.’
‘Monserrat actually, going up to the monastery for a few days.’ I don’t know why I felt awkward telling her this but I did.
‘That’s a coincidence, we’re going there too,’ George said. ‘Can I offer you a lift? We’ve a little car downstairs. Clem’s the driver out of the two of us. Apparently my temperament is not conducive to getting behind the wheel. You don’t mind Clem if we take Mister… sorry, didn’t catch your name?’
George continued, ‘If we give my new friend, Mister Henderson, a ride in the old charabanc up the mountain do you?’ There was something unsettling about the way George Courland had elevated our relationship to good friends. After all we’d only just met and I’d been far from friendly towards him.
‘Perhaps another time George.’ Clementia said. I noticed that she appeared to be indicating to George with her eyes and a frown that all was not well down in the street. ‘Sorry Mister Henderson, but you’ll have to forgive us once again as I’m afraid it will have to be no this time.
‘Maybe we can meet up in Monserrat then,’ I said, hoping actually, that I’d never see either of them again.
‘Be great if we could,’ George said, ‘no London club up there though. Bit like the army; hard beds, cold rooms and thin cabbage soup for breakfast, lunch and tea, a chap might be glad of a friend to talk to after a few days of that life.’
‘We’ll look you up then?’ Clementia said with one of her weak half smiles.
I went back through the terrace doors into the cool shade of the club lounge, past the long varnished dark wood and brass bar where a few early drinkers were sharing a lewd story with the barman. Once out into the street I looked up at the balcony to see if the Courlands were looking over, but they’d gone and I imagined that they were probably busily reading the newspaper together.
Apart from the normal bustle of traffic and people in a Barcelona street there was nothing to see except that I noticed that a couple of civil guards were checking over a battered dusty car with a French registration plate that was parked almost directly opposite the club’s entrance. Then I thought that I could hear my name being called out and instinctively looked upwards. It was Clementia who was looking over the balcony.
‘Henderson,’ she was shouting down. ‘Not going to Monserrat now. We’re off to Seville instead.’ I held my arms out wide and called back up.
‘Why? Because it’s beautiful forever there.’
© Daly June 2013
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