We were standing in the tiny hall: me, Catriona, Annette and her toy Yorkshire terrier, Ahmed. It was our first Airbnb booking and Annette was welcoming us to her humble home. She was a mature, careworn, attractive French woman with a modest disposition and she spoke pretty good English. Her husband would be coming back from his work shortly and when he did she would introduce him to us, she said. Had we found the flat easily?
Not that easily, in truth. The photo had suggested a house on a residential street, but a friendly black woman carrying a bag of laundry, who candidly admitted that she didn’t know her left from her right, had beckoned us through a communal doorway into a chilly concrete basement and sent us upa concrete ramp. From here we were directed by a wizened old woman into a block of what might have been social housing. But to keep the small talk brief we said that, yes, we had found the place with no trouble at all. Then Catriona pretended to admire the little dog, which, if shorn of its hair, would have been the size of a rat. The dog was in a self-absorbed, miniature world of its own andI could find little affection for it either.
Annette produced a pair of keys and an electronic disc and began to explain which door was opened by which key. She was interrupted by a knock at the door. Ah, this must be her husband now! She opened the door to reveal a long lean man with a long, deadpan comic’s face, who went straight into this pantomime slapstick business of not recognising the people crowding the hall, or indeed his own house. He rubbed his head in confusion, gaped about him, then wandered away to scrutinise the numbers on the other landing doors, finally hammering on the farthest one as if panic-stricken. Then he loped back and timidly crossed the threshold, shyly extending a palm to each of us, his wife included. ‘My husband Yves,’ said Annette.
Understanding English but not speaking it, the head of the household shook his head as if in vehement rebuttal of a barefaced lie. Miming the action of a carpenter hammering a nail into the wall at head height, followed by a manic visual impression ofa man walking a dog on a lead, he indicated that in reality he was merely her paid handyman and dog walker. Then, reaching low between Annette’s thighs, he affectionately patted the mound in her jeans. This was as if to say that while it was true that here lay yet another of his responsibilities, it was all part of his menial paid job.
His wife accepted the pat and silliness with equanimity, if not pride, then resumed the small talk. ‘You have come for the feria?’ she said. We had, we said. ‘And will you go to one of the bullfights?’ In fact, we had tickets for tonight’s, we said. At this, Annette expressed good-natured repugnance with an exquisite shudder. But her husband completely lost his head. Shouting and whooping, he bounded into the tiny kitchen and bounded out again flapping a tea towel and inviting me with gruff, inarticulate taunts to charge it. With four of us now crowded into the personal space normally reserved for a single neurotic, there was little room for manoeuvre. Nevertheless I accepted the challenge. With upraised forefingers at my temples for horns, I crashed through the towel, turned on a sixpence, came atthe towel a second time and stepped on the dog, which screamed.
Your husband likes the bulls, I said? No, said Annette. He prefers to go to the beach. Her husband signalled agreement by promptly rolling up the towel, sticking it under his armpit and marching determinedly out of the flat and out of the building. And that was the last we saw of him.
Annette shut the front door, led us along a short corridor and introduced us to our bedroom. It was airy and clean with a window that looked out on to a concrete quadrangle bounded on three sides by blocks of flats. ‘Is he really going to the beach, your husband?’ I asked her. ‘The nearest must be 50 miles away.’ ‘Oh yes,’ she said. ‘My husband adores the beach.’ Then she wished us an enjoyable stay and left us to it.
I was tired and lay down on the bed and immediately fell asleep. When I woke, the flat and those surrounding it were cloistered in mid-afternoon somnolence. Outside the window the melodic cadences ofa single song thrush, doubly amplified by the concrete surfaces of the quadrangle, were astonishing in their purity and virtuosity. I showered and dressed and mentally prepared myself to face the drunken madness of the Pentecost feria.