Thursday, March 20, 2014

Strange Journey - Chapter 3


Milanese dreams

Chris was staying in a hotel that he reckoned was in easy walking distance of the Garibaldi Station. But it was late and Milan was a strange city. The areas around stations are traditionally a bit on the seedy side. He could do without the excitement of being mugged or pickpocketed - after his travails on the train it would tip this over into being the official worst day of his life ever. So he was not going to walk to the hotel. But he did not want to get a taxi either. Chris had travelled enough to know that far too many taxi drivers saw newly arrived foreign tourists as easy marks, taking them on roundabout routes to destinations that could be reached in only a few minutes. The worse thing about this kind of exploitative behaviour for Chris was that it made him distrust all taxi drivers. He could not get into a cab in a strange city without worrying that he was being taken advantage of. It would upset his nerves to take a taxi, as he would be on edge for the whole journey, suspicious that the driver was trying to play him for a fool, warily eyeing ever turn in case the driver was taking an unnecessary detour (when he might just in fact be navigating the city's one-way system). So a cab was out of the question. That left the metro. The hotel was close to the Garibaldi Station, but not so close that Garibaldi was the nearest metro stop. Chris made his way down into the underground.

Of course, the metro had its own terrors. It was late at night and the station was quiet - not so quiet that it was completely deserted, but quiet enough that Chris found it a bit edgy. Ordinarily he would not worry about such things. He was not a man skilled in the arts of violence, but he was a big man and he had learned over the years how to project an image of self-confidence that made him feel reasonably safe in any environment. But as the train journey had not proved as relaxing as he had hoped, he was afraid that further untoward events would occur. The memory stick in his pocket was also a new source of concern. Marchand had warned him not to tell anyone about it. The whole business was obviously so strange that he found it easy to believe that other people would be keen to either stop him delivering the memory stick or else take it from him to extract the information that was on it. If they had seen him with Marie and Marcel then they might realise what was going on, tail him to the station and try to jump him. So Chris was nervous and afraid that someone was about to leap on him from the shadows or behind a pillar. He glanced nervously around the station. His other fear was that some gang of local roughs, perhaps drunken fans of one of those football teams they had in Milan, might show up and take a dislike to him. He listened out for the raised voices of the inebriated, but he heard nothing of the kind. Just the sound of two women talking in Italian further down the platform, oblivious to his existence. That was about it.

The underground train arrived and Chris boarded it. The carriage was not busy. An old bearded man in what looked like a sailor suit sat on his own, babbling to himself in a language Chris could not place. A teenage girl sat reading a copy of Italian Vogue, her small dress, bag, hat, hair and boots as carefully coordinated as anything in the fashion magazine. Even the magazine seemed to have been chosen so that it would complement her outfit. A dark-haired man in his thirties with a neat moustache sat reading a book but slyly regarding the girl. His suit was astonishingly well-cut. Chris was not one of those men who takes an interest in fashion or clothes, but he found himself comparing himself to the suited man. Although in no way dressed in rags himself, the comparison made Chris feel terribly dishevelled. He ruefully registered that even the confused old man seemed to be wearing a very precisely tailored sailor suit. It looked like Milan was going to be a smart town, and Chris was worried that he would stick out like a sore thumb.

The hotel however, was anything but smart. Located above a noisy biker bar, the Hotel Comfortable gave the initial impression of being anything but. The man working the desk sported a thin mullet and a string vest, together with an untidy growth on his unshaven features that would never pass for designer stubble. He seemed not to understand Chris's claim to have booked a room on a reputable hotel booking website, even when the print-out was shown to him. But eventually he grasped why Chris was standing there with his bag late in the evening. The receptionist opened a large notebook and went through several pages before eventually finding something that to him explained everything. "Yes, yes, yes!" he said to Chris, handing him a key with a room number on it, then pointing him in the direction of some more stairs.

Chris found his room. He was surprised by the number of crucifixes and lurid paintings of Christ hung up on the walls. Apart from that, the room was about as poky as could be expected, given the price he was paying for it. But it was noisier, with a window opening onto the biker bar, where the house band seemed to still playing the extended version of 'Born to be Wild' that Chris had heard as soon as he left the metro station. He knew that it would be the same whatever room he stayed in. He was too tired and too unused to Milan to go looking for another hotel. So he put in his earplugs and got into bed. And despite the noise, despite the hoarse vocals bellowing out 'GET THE MOTOR RUNNING!' for the umpteenth time, the tiredness and excitement of the long day meant that he fell swiftly asleep.

He did wake at one point in the middle off the night. What sounded like a party of some kind was going on in the next room. People were talking loudly, or having sex, or playing music, or all of the previous, at once. He thought momentarily of banging on the wall or shouting at them to be quiet or inviting himself in or complaining to reception, or something, but he was too tired for any of that. In fact he was so tired that the noise did not sufficiently penetrate his earplugs to keep him awake. He rapidly descended back into his slumbers.

His sleep was disturbed by odd dreams. The party expanded to surround him. Marchand, Marie and Marcel were standing in corner, watching him. Naked people were playing the game he had played with his interrogators on the train. Marie kissed Marchand on the lips, then turned and kissed Marcel. Marcel smiled at Chris, the tenderness on his features in marked contrast to the brutishness the real Marcel had exhibited earlier. He began to unbutton his tunic. The man in the sailor suit came into the room, walking on all fours, while the smartly dressed teenage girl rode him like a horse. And then on a TV screen, Chris saw a fuzzy image of his wife in Athens. She looked out at him and shook her head sadly. Marcel, who was now naked, walked over to the TV screen and seemed to climb into it. He stood there with Chris's wife. They embraced. Marchand turned off the television. Everything seemed to fly around Chris and he remembered nothing further when he woke up in the morning.

Once Chris realised what time it was he quickly dressed and made his way down to the breakfast room, taking care to bring the memory stick with him. He looked at other guests and tried to work out which of them had been making the noise in next room. He reckoned the fat priest who was heartily tucking into some sweet cakes was probably not one of the culprits, though you never could tell - this was Italy after all. There was a sensuality to his consumption of those moist, honey-drenched delicacies that made Chris think the priest could easily be no stranger to the sins of carnality. And then there were the two nuns sitting by the window, one of whom seemed to be smiling in the general direction of Chris. For all their clerical garb, they too looked like there was something a bit less than celibate about them. Their habits were a bit on the tight side and their facial expressions a bit too worldly for Chris to believe that they had entirely forsaken the ways of the flesh. And would sworn celibates normally be so made up? Chris had a bit of a thing for bizarre anti-clerical pornography ("who doesn't?" he would have said if challenged on this point), but it was not just that which made it all too credible that the nuns and the priest had been engaging in sexual romps in the room next too him.

Chris was still only half awake and not entirely sure as to which exact events of the previous day had actually occurred and which were part of last night's dream, so it took a while for him to notice the one really obvious thing about the breakfast room. It happened as he looked from the fat priest to the two nuns, to the two older priests drinking coffee as they chatted casually, to the bishop eating a bowl of cereal while reading a newspaper, and finally to an older nun in a different habit sitting on her own diffidently eating a croissant and drinking an orange juice - all the other guests in the breakfast room were either priests or nuns. Chris was the only person there who was not in clerical garb, apart from the hotel staff who occasionally appeared to replenish the cake stands or dole out more coffee. With this realisation came the paranoid sense that the various clergymen and women were only too aware of this interloper in their midst but were too polite to draw attention to the fact. Had he stumbled onto some kind of hotel that existed solely to serve the interests of the clergy? That would explain the religious paraphernalia in his room. It would also explain the receptionist who found it so hard to accept that he had a booking, yet there had been nothing to indicate that this was a specialist hotel when he made the reservation on the website.

He ate his breakfast, trying to look as inconspicuous as possible. This was not easy, as his table was towards the centre of the room, definitely not tucked away in a corner. There was nowhere for him to hide from the clerical gaze. But he did his best to draw attention to himself. And he thought nervously to himself that he had done nothing wrong - he had, in good faith, booked himself into a hotel and had never at any point tried to pass himself off as a man of the cloth. The priests and nuns all around him did not give any obvious impression that they were in any way put out by his presence, but Chris could not help thinking that behind their apparent nonchalance lay inner selves of seething irritation that a member of the laity was daring to intrude on their breakfast. Or maybe they thought he was another one of them? True, Chris was not wearing anything that could be passed off as traditional clerical garb, but hadn't he read somewhere that the Jesuits had some kind of special dispensation that allowed them to wear normal clothes whenever they liked?

Chris was not sure whether it would be a good or a bad thing for them to think he was a Jesuit. It might make them less likely to turn against him. But what if they were to think he was a plain clothes priest and then were to discover that he was not? Perhaps they would react with a terrifying fury to the realisation that they had let themselves be duped. Even though Chris would not have done anything to mislead him, their anger was not something he wanted to experience. He had the idea that there is nothing more terrifying than a wrathful mob of priests and nuns, and he feared the consequences of exposure.

These kind of thoughts turning over in his mind meant that Chris did not particularly enjoy his breakfast. He finished his meal without going back to many times for more of the delicious cake and skulked back to his room to get ready for the day. After showering and dressing he exited the hotel as quickly as he could.

On leaving, he decided to walk up to see Milano Centrale, the main train station of the city (he had arrived in Garibaldi station, which was relatively nearby but not the main station). He had two reasons for doing this. Firstly, Centrale was where he would have to catch his train to Bari tomorrow morning. Secondly, he had heard that the building was something of an architectural wonder, so he wanted time to have a proper look at it. He approached the station up an enormously wide avenue, flanked by buildings of a monumental nature. Centrale itself was in the distance, a gleaming expanse of white marble. As he drew closer to it, he saw it more clearly and could see why it was a building people spoke highly of. It was an intriguing neo-classical confection, with pillars and winged figures and Roman-era warriors arranged all over it. But it also called to mind early 20th century modernism, which was not too surprising as it had apparently been built during the Mussolini era. The whole thing had an air of giganticism and Chris could well imagine that its primary purpose was not to allow people to catch trains per se as much as to remind people that they individually were small but the State was big.

It was still relatively early. As Chris walked up the avenue, he passed overhanging buildings that created covered arcades on the pavement beside him. There were some people in sleeping bags here, revealing the sad truth that even in as city as obviously prosperous as this there were losers as well as winners. Then he approached a particular fellow in a sleeping bag who seemed to be stirring. The street sleeper crawled out of his bag, revealing to Chris's astonishment that he was clad in a business suit that looked far too immaculate to have been worn by someone who had spent the night sleeping on the streets of Milan. The main folded up his sleeping bag carefully, donned a pair of sunglasses and then strode off purposefully, looking for all the world like he was heading to work in an office job that would require interaction with important clients. He caught Chris's eye momentarily and nodded to him in greeting and then was gone.

Chris continued on to the station. From a closer vantage its monumental nature was even more apparent. Chris felt obliged to admit that yes, he was small and the State was big. Inside the station was a hive of activity and not even remotely the den of seediness that reputation had filling all Italian stations. But then it was still early. The station's interior boasted a succession of stairwells and escalators going up and down, on which people far more smartly dressed than Chris went busily about their business. There were also all manner of caf├ęs, bars and restaurants, though at this time of the morning it was mostly the places where people could grab a coffee and a croissant that were attracting custom. Chris was still full after his breakfast but he decided that he simply had to live the dream, ordering a little Italian coffee and a croissant and eating them standing at one of those high tables. He reflected on how the Italian for croissant seemed to be cornetto. So did they have cornettos and if so, what did they call them? Croissants? The question was not one on which he dwelt too long as he did not like cornettos.

Chris eventually left the station, feeling that it alone had justified his stop-over in Milan. His plan now was to walk into the centre of Milan and have a look at this big cathedral they had there. But as he was on his way he realised that he had left his phone in his hotel room. At one level this was not a big deal - no one ever rang him anyway and he could tell the time from his watch. But if he had the phone with him he might find somewhere with free WiFi and think of something amazing that he could post on Twitter or Facebook for the entertainment of his handful of friends and followers. So he decided to detour back into the hotel and pick up the phone, which would not lose him too much time. As he came through the lobby he could see into the dining area and was relieved to see that the priests and nuns were all gone now. The lobby was now deserted, apart from one old guy behind the desk who barely looked up from the fancy magazine he was reading as Chris walked past. In fact, he did not look up at all. He continued on up to his room. His first thought on entering it was that the place was a bit of a tip - the cleaners had obviously not got to it yet. But then it hit him that the mess was different to when he had left that morning. The bed clothes were thrown around, his bags emptied, his possessions strewn about the place.


The story continues

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