Sunday, November 28, 2010

Muy misterioso...

When I was in Spain this week, an interviewer asked me, "What is the real Helen Grant like?" This was a bit of a fast ball since nearly everyone asks me how long it takes to write a book, where I get my ideas, etc. However, having reviewed all my inner characteristics in a nanosecond and rejected the bits about Never Saying No To Chocolate, having dubious daydreams about Johnny Depp and Preferring Mess To Housework, I replied (truthfully) that I am a person with a very active imagination, and it colours the way I see the world. Well, "colours" is a nice way of saying "completely and utterly falsifies."
Take for example my Dutch class, which I have been attending for two and half years now. Nederlands 1 and 2 introduced us to Hagob (Armenian) and Dorjee (Tibetan) as well as Dalia (Syrian) and Monserrat (Phillipina). (There was nothing so pedestrian as a European amongst this cast of characters.) They were forever ringing each other up or "accidentally" meeting in the street and having seemingly innocuous conversations about the weather or proposed cinema trips. If I had taken all this at face value I would have died of boredom long before we got onto irregular Dutch past participles, so I used to create extravagant supplementary histories for the characters. Hagob and Dorjee were clearly desperate to find women, but hampered by their lack of Dutch fluency, hence the inane remarks about the weather; Dalia and Monserrat had rumbled their little game long ago and kept trying to pass them onto each other, hence the rash of introductions in the first chapter - it was nothing to do with learning Dutch social conventions and everything to do with offloading an unwanted suitor. And don't get me onto Geert in the pink polo shirt in the chapter about family trees - no need to ask why he's still single at 30...
Given this predilection for "enhancing reality", you can imagine how my imagination ran riot when I turned up at my hotel in Madrid to find it crawling with security. At least, I think that's what they were. I took the lift to the second floor to find two men in suits wearing earpieces sitting on chairs one either side of one of the doors. They didn't have any luggage with them so I don't think they were waiting to get into their room, and they didn't look friendly. No nodding, no Buenas dias, just a flat stare. I went to my room and let myself in, feeling slightly uncomfortable; looked back after unlocking the door and saw one of them staring back at me. Bodyguards, I decided. But whose? The hotel was very comfortable and modern, but it wasn't the sort of marble-and-crystal-chandeliers type of place that film stars hang out in. Or was someone slumming it, in the hopes of going unnoticed?
I went out for a couple of hours to look around Madrid and when I got back to the hotel, the men were still there on the landing, still staring and still not saying anything. In fact, when I looked, the whole hotel seemed to be crawling with men in suits wearing earpieces. There was one with a Mephistophelean beard; he was definitely up to no good. He was probably one of those people you get in films, who can kill you in two seconds with his bare hands.
I began to wish I was someone with no imagination at all; nasty thoughts kept occurring to me, eg. if someone on my corridor needed bodyguards, were they expecting an imminent attack? Wasn't it a bit dangerous being on the same floor? Was I going to end up as "collateral damage"? Feeling rather silly but distinctly unnerved, I put a chair up against the door before I went to bed. There; that should stop contract killers sneaking in, killing me silently and using my room as a base.
The next morning I opened the curtains to discover a police van parked opposite the hotel. Out on the landing, the two men were still at their posts - or was it another two men? Hard to tell. Downstairs in the lobby was another little huddle of men in suits; whilst I sat there waiting for my interpreter to turn up, a policeman came in and starting speaking to them. How I wished I had got past Lesson 1: El Campesino in Living Spanish. Then I might have been able to work out whether they were saying, "The target has been eliminated; the jump jet is waiting" or "Can you move your car, please, sir; it's obstructing a delivery entrance."
I didn't dare ask the hotel staff what it was all about, in case I either made myself look terminally stupid or very suspicious. I did find myself wondering afterwards however whether the two men on my hotel corridor had imaginations as active as mine. Did they watch me unlocking my door and wonder whether that wheeled bag concealed a balaclava, an abseil rope and an Uzi? Did they see me open the door to the room service guy and wonder whether I was really giving him a two euro tip or passing a microdot? Let's hope so, because otherwise they must have had a terribly boring night, poor things, with nothing to do expect watch the digital numbers on the lift door going up and down.

PS Later in the day, comfortably removed from the hotel, I asked my contacts at the publisher's if they had any idea what had been going on. They were as puzzled as I was - but someone suggested it may have been a diplomat or other bigwig since there was some sort of big event related to the Spanish royal family going on. So whoever was in the room with the men outside, it probably wasn't a film star. Shame; I was hoping for Johnny Depp.

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