DON’T DROP THE SOAP
I grew up in Queensland, so I’m no stranger to hot weather, but I was suffering on this trip. The coast road on the Mediterranean side of Spain passes through some very dry country, and hitching was a slow way to get around.
It was high summer in the dying days of the Franco regime and the mood of the people was as sullen as the climate. I’d nearly been beaten up in a Madrid bar for chatting up a senorita, and fair-haired tourists didn’t seem too popular.
The bullet-pocked walls in the villages and abundant half-repaired war damage leftover from the thirties served as an obvious reminder of the excitability of the locals. I was going it alone.
I had parted ways with my erstwhile English travelling companion when tensions had come to blows over a girl on the train to Valencia. He had a very idealistic view of thumbing around and wasn’t at all impressed when he found out there was lots of sleeping out, and walking in the rain, involved.
A bank teller’s mix-up in Madrid had landed him a few hundred pounds extra, and not being the sharing type immediately decided that he was going to travel in style and I could tag along if I felt like it…I didn’t.
The fact that he might get arrested at some stage had also occurred to me, and not being involved in the sharing of the spoils made the decision an easy one.
When I finally got a lift with a German girl, and she dropped me off right in the middle of Barcelona, I was amazed, this place had a very different feel about it. The teeming streets and bars seemed like a different country to the harsh interior.
The Madrilenos had struck me as a scowling mob of bastards, but these people seemed to be having a good time for the sake of it.
I was, however, tired, dirty and dying for a tub. Three days of constant travelling had made my clothes feel like oilskins and I no doubt ponged, which may have explained the keenness of the kraut to be shot of me.
Then again, maybe the fact that I was a fairly callow 18-year-old and she was much older may have been a factor.
Anyway, she had dropped me right at the Plaza de Cataluña, so I had a quick beer at an outdoor cafe at the top of the Ramblas, then wandered down towards the docks, soaking up the frenetic atmosphere of the Catalans in full swing.
After a while, I found myself at the Estacion De Francia. One can always find cheap places near a railway station, so I set off looking for a pensione to lay my weary head in. I turned a couple of corners and found myself in Barceloneta, and it was a world, unlike anything I’d seen before. The narrow alleys were filthy, and washing hung overhead strung between the crumbling tenements.
Gun-toting Guardia Civil stood on corners grimly smoking Panatellas as gangs of youths staggered down the streets singing and banging on cars. Huge old whores cackled their come-on routines at drunks lolling about in the gutters pouring Rojo down their gullets.
Snot-nosed brats cavorted in the rubbish piled up against walls covered in torn posters for long-forgotten bullfights.
It was like a Fellini movie, and highly entertaining, but all I wanted was a bed and a bath. I headed for the nearest place I could see and booked in.
The obese desk clerk took my money and details, then, mopping his jowls with an old scarf, led me up the creaking stairs into the rabbit warren of rooms. Swarthy characters hung around in the corridors wearing filthy singlets, sweaty cravats and scuffed winklepickers.
Some even cleaned their fingernails with the ubiquitous stiletto knives of the region and glared at me from under the dank locks of pomaded hair that hung over their aquiline visages. It dawned on me that this was probably also a brothel, but I was too tired to care, all I wanted was rest.
As my wheezing guide led me further into the labyrinth the tumult and the traffic increased…shouting, arguing. Half-naked porcine women chewed cigar butts as they squatted over tin tubs in the hallway washing soiled garments of all descriptions, it was positively mediaeval.
When we got to the room it was like a cell, with no window to the outside, only a heavily barred aperture to the teeming corridors which surrounded it, and a mercifully solid door.
My limited command of Spanish meant that the argument was useless, and I resolved to make the best of the situation and at least get cleaned up. I would have to forgo eating out as I was not leaving my gear alone for very long in this den of villains, and would have to eat the bread and cheese I always carried for emergencies.
Getting to and from the shower was going to be an adventure and I resolved to get it out of the way quick smart, I grabbed my toiletries and most importantly my valuables, stuffed the large hunting knife I always carried into my jeans, locked the door, and headed for the bathroom.
That knife was a well-balanced and useful implement, an old digger had given it to me when we worked together in the meatworks years before, he was an ex-commando and had instructed me in the finer points of throwing it as well, so I had no trouble putting it dead centre in a ciggy packet at twenty paces.
I felt secure with it on board; it had come in handy some months before when facing down three Turks who had pulled theirs on me in Frankfurt Bahnhof.
They demanded all my money but I informed them in my passable Street German that they were women and arsehole lickers. They were very upset at this, but didn’t seem too keen to take me on once I’d shown them the blade. Such is the bravado of youth.
The bathroom was a small cubicle with a hole in the floor and a tap on the end of an overhead piece of hanging pipe. It was so hot and steamy in the decaying building that I didn’t give a damn about the temperature of the water; at least there was some.
It was also surprisingly clean, given the tone of the place: the walls lacked the usual coating of spackled sputum that one encounters during toilet procedures in that part of the world. This is due to the local habit of voluminous expectoration during ablutions.
I turned to shut the door and noticed a few of the denizens at the end of the hallway watching me, so I quickly shut the door and went to ram the bolt home…..It wouldn’t go: the bolthole was stuffed with paper. A wave of fear and deja-vu swept over me as I frantically dug the paper out with the room key and locked the door. As soon as I turned on the tap, I knew what would happen.
Some months before I’d had the misfortune to arrive in London at about six pm on a Friday night. I had relied on the train arriving earlier, but there had been some delay on the other side of the Channel and I had arrived with no cash in Sterling.
My traveller’s cheques had all runout, and although I had funds in the Bank, this was before the age of ATM’s and I had no way to get at it until the next Tuesday as it was a holiday weekend. I had a smattering of francs I could change over but not enough for a decent feed, let alone accommodation.
I had left my bankbook in a safe deposit box before I left as it was useless on the continent, so I couldn’t prove my solvency to any local innkeeper and didn’t think it worthwhile to try and throw myself on anyone’s mercy.
Australia House Specialised in being totally unhelpful as a matter of policy, and your average Londoner is not a very sympathetic individual in my experience.
The few people I had got to know on my last visit had moved on in my absence, so there were no floors or couches to be had. There was nothing else for it, I would have to sleep rough, and it was late Autumn going on Winter. This wouldn’t be much fun.
The first night was OK, I knew a spot in Regent’s Park where you could actually pitch a small tent and not be seen, which was handy if you wanted to sleep in, or avoid police and thieves. It was pretty cold but bearable, however, I only had a pup tent, and needed trees to sling it from: there was only a ring of bushes concealing the spot.
Once it started raining in the morning, I knew I had to find a new hideaway. Hanging around a large city with no food or money is a fairly boring way to spend the day, you wander around in a dejected limbo watching the rest of the population striding about in that purposeful and hurried metropolitan manner they have.
All you wish for is to be able to sit down in a warm spot and have a good meal in comfort. I never took to the European practice of begging, it used to annoy me intensely being accosted by young people cadging money all the time, so I considered it beneath my dignity to take it up myself.
Pride goes a long way sometimes. Nobody knew me so it wasn’t a matter of losing face, I only had myself to answer to. I just felt that to lose your integrity was something you would never be able to escape from; you would always know.
As night fell I got talking to a young Dutchman loitering about like myself, and it transpired that he, too, was in dire straits on the money front. We resolved to join forces and see what we could turn up.
The rain was pretty solid this stage so we decided to try out a refuge in Shaftesbury Ave I’d heard about. We knocked on the gate and some vicar type asked us what we wanted. We explained our predicament and were soon given a tongue-lashing for having the cheek to expect help.
Who the hell were we, bloody tourists out for a free holiday? Should have brought more money with you!! This is for English people! Go to your bloody Embassy why don’t you etc etc. It was a more vehement performance than I expected from a man of the cloth.
The patient and tolerant side of my nature were stretched fairly thin this stage and I’ve never had much time for god-botherers anyway. Seeing that the gate was still locked, I vented my spleen in a torrent of oaths directed at him and all pommy bastards in general.
This upset some standers, and the Bobbies were called. We were moved on fairly smartly, but not before being told of a “hostel” down towards the East End.
It seemed like a good option and we walked through the pouring rain for miles until we found it. Once we got inside we were flabbergasted…it was gigantic. It was obviously an old military establishment and the main hall contained literally hundreds of double bunks jammed into rows that seemed to stretch forever into the gloomy recesses.
They were very close together and packed full, and the place was teeming with all sorts, from down-and-outers and gibbering lunatics to homeless Irishmen, sailors, and drunks of every hue. There were a few backpack types among the seething throng but it most resembled photos I’d seen of reffo camps at the end of WW2.
We handed over the 50 pence tariff and were informed that the main room was full, but we could sleep in the shower room. This was the biggest washroom I’d ever seen, it was at least a hundred yards long and there were more tiles than a Roman temple.
The dozens of shower nozzles stuck out of the wall in a row and there were no cubicles.
At one end there was a small roofless storeroom with walls about ten feet high, and a pile of gymnastic gear: mats, bars, a horse and the like. I and my companion had been joined a Swedish chap so we decided to hole up in the storeroom and sleep on the mats, it would be a lot cosier than being out in the noisy throng. We were in the process of settling in when a young guy, maybe Italian, came in and proceeded to have a shower.
We were out of sight down at the end of the room and just as well, for as soon as he was naked, a gang of five Arabs burst in. Two raced over and pinioned the victim to the wall, and another held a knife to his throat while the others ransacked his gear.
We didn’t know what to do, these were grown men and we were only kids really, besides, I was the only one-armed, and we were outnumbered. They hadn’t seen us hiding behind the wooden horse so we stayed out of sight.
The obvious leader of the gang didn’t seem to be impressed with the haul from the guy’s wallet so he must have decided to get a bit more for his trouble; he walked over to the still restrained Italian kid, dropped his pants, greased himself up with soap or something, and proceeded to give it to this guy straight up the arse.
Now, I’m not a squeamish bloke, I’d seen a fellow in a red leather jumpsuit giving a blow-job with a gun at his head in a Berlin park, rough Turkish child porn in Denmark, and fairly disturbing goings-on in the depths of an opium den in Amsterdam, but this was outrageous.
I have to admit that I was petrified. This was a new one on me. Luckily the rapist finished off quickly, then grabbed his victim the hair and slammed his face into the tiles, knocking him out cold, did up his tweeds, and they all strolled out chuckling.
We still crouched behind our shelter, waiting till they were long gone before venturing out to help the guy lying on the cold floor. Before we could move, his friends came in and discovered him lying there, and all hell broke loose.
There was quite a few of them, and once they worked out what had happened, it was on for young and old. As the sounds of tumult increased, we decided to stay where we were, it was getting hairy.
From what we could hear, the Arabs were still in the building and were putting up a good fight. It soon sounded like a full-scale riot was in progress out in the main, we could hear police whistles, lots of heavy boots were going up and downstairs, and bleeding people were staggering in to wash.
We were still undiscovered, so we barricaded the door of our little hide-away, and kept quiet. We spent the night taking turns sleeping and had to bash a few fingers that tried to climb over the wall as the uproar continued.
Thankfully it was all quiet dawn. We then armed ourselves with various implements and made a dash through the wreckage to the street outside. It was back to the park for me, thanks.
I had accurately sussed out my position: as soon as I began showering, the door was given a decent thump from the other side, but my quick repair job on the lock had saved the day: it held.
I had a good lather up while I worked out my next course of action. The bastards were going to be waiting for me when I tried to get back to the room.
I could only hope that they had been a bit put off my perspicacity in figuring out the door routine, and might consider me a smarter customer than I appeared.
I got dressed, put my stuff in my shaving kit, then wrapped my dirty clothes around my stomach to protect my kidneys if they got me from behind; rolled my towel around my left forearm, got the knife out, and burst out of the door waving it around and ready to engage.
The two Caballeros waiting at the foot of the steps got a big surprise and backed off into the shadows. Their supposed easy mark had come out swinging, and being carved up didn’t seem to strike them as a worthwhile price to pay for my limited pile of pesetas, which was obviously all I would have if I was staying in that dingy hole.
I made it back to the room in one piece, albeit with a small crowd following at a respectable distance. Once I was securely locked in, I managed to get a fair night’s sleep, although the odd arm would come through the bars and feel around from time to time.
I had naturally placed all my belongings under the bed and slept with the blade handy, so that didn’t really disturb me.
I made my exit in the morning in combat position, but word had got around, and the few figures slouching in the gloom gave me a wide berth. Once out into the open air, I sheathed my blade and headed off.
A couple of days later I was in Marseilles; another colourful port with an active demi-monde.
All sorts of things of an entertaining nature happened there as well, and I ended up with a couple of very agreeable French ladies, who took me up to a cave in the mountains full of chanting monks and the bones of Mary Magdalene in a glass case…….but that’s another story.