“El numero 17 quiere agua con gas,” shouted Don Ignacio as Leonora walked by. “Ahora.”
She hated the way he just barked everything at her, as if she were a soldier. The pay at the Parador was good, and she got a little more, because she spoke English, but it was only a summer job to help pay for school. He didn’t have a right to bark at her.
On the other hand, that’s the way he spoke to everyone, even his tired old wife, Dona Angelita. He’d been a colonel in the war, they said. Well, it showed.
“Shall I take up some ice, too?” she asked, making sure he knew she wasn’t kowtowing.
“Don’t waste ice on those foreigners. They all think it’s poisoned anyway—they never use it.” Don Ignacio held out a bill.
Leonora shrugged and took the piece of paper. She went to the old refrigerator in the pantry and pulled out a bottle of La Casera fizzy mineral water. Grabbing a tray and a glass, she arranged it all neatly and headed up the steep stone staircase to the first floor.
The Parador de Malaga was built on a mountain outlook, almost a kilometre up from the village. It had once been a Moorish stronghold, but Franco had turned it into a national hotel for the tourists. It had beautiful views, overlooking the Mediterranean, but Leonora’s mother said it was as cold as a witch’s tit in the winter.
Her mother had worked at the Parador ever since Leonora could remember. Through bad years and good years, even after her father died. Her old mum woke every morning at five and made her way on foot, up the mountain road, to the hotel. When Leonora had turned fifteen, her mother persuaded Don Ignacio to give Leonora some work as a maid, at the height of the tourist season, in the summer months.
She checked herself in the corridor’s mirror, straightening her little white cap and tucking under a few black strands of hair that had come loose. She licked her fingers, and smoothed her wavy hair into place. Giving her white apron a little flick to straighten it, too, she grinned at herself in the mirror. What a stupid uniform. Number seventeen was at the end of the hallway, looking south, over the sea. She knocked softly at the door.
She turned the handle and pushed the door open. “You ordered water?” Leonora peeked around the edge of the open door. She’d walked in on a completely naked Swedish woman once. The woman hadn’t seemed to notice at all, but Leonora had been mortified. Now she was a little more careful.
The room was empty. “Hello?”
“Just put it on the table, please.” The disembodied male voice emanated from the open door of the bathroom. Leonora heard running water stop as the guest shut off the tap.
She pushed away some papers on the dresser, to make room for tray. In fact, the whole room was a mess. Papers everywhere and a portable typewriter sitting in the middle of the bed. If the ribbon ink got on the sheets, it would be hell to get out. She frowned. “You need to sign the bill, please.”
The bathroom door creaked, and she quickly lowered her head. There was never any telling what these foreigners wore or didn’t wear when someone else was in their room. “The bill. You need to sign it.”
She heard his bare feet on the tile and feared the worst, but she couldn’t help taking a tiny peek as he walked towards the dresser. She could see the bottom of his legs, in trousers, and heaved a sigh of relief. Looking up, she watched the man patting his just-shaved face with a towel. He was wearing no shirt, but at least he was decent. She gave him a little smile and fished a pen out of her uniform pocked.
He took the pen off her with long, thin fingers. In fact, now that she could see him, it was clear that he was all long bones.
“Thanks.” He signed the bill and a hank of wet, fair hair flopped over his eyes as he bent over the desk. “No ice?”
“Oh. Would you like some? Most guests don’t want any. They say the water makes them sick.”
He had a very lopsided smile. It made him look like a puppy, even though he was almost as old as Leonora’s Uncle Carlos. Very old—at least thirty. “It doesn’t make me sick. Nothing makes me sick.”
“I’ll bring you some, immediately.” She took the signed chit off the tray.
“That would be nice, thank you,” he said. He had the softest voice, and it sounded like it smiled too.
There was something about him. The way he looked, and his smell, perhaps, that made Leonora blush. Feeling a little foolish, she turned on her heels and left the room.
She glanced at the bill as she walked back down the corridor. He’d given her a tip—a tip! Not that Don Ignacio would actually give it to her, but she grinned at the fact that he bothered. And his name—she squinted at the signature in the dim hall lights—was John. John something. She couldn’t make the rest of it out. Perhaps, when the boss was away from the desk, she’d take a look in the big register book.
Leonora slapped the signed bill on the wood of the reception desk, startling Don Ignacio. “He wants ice. He said it doesn’t make him sick—nothing does.”
“Fucking foreigners. They do, they don’t, they want, they don’t want. Who the hell knows what’s going to make them happy?” the old man grumbled. “Well, don’t just stand there, stupid. Take up some ice.”
She thought of some something cutting to say back. It made her so mad when he called her ‘stupid’. But she gave an exasperated huff and headed for the kitchen. “That’s exactly what I’m doing,” she called over her shoulder, “because I’m so stupid!”
After filling a little silver bucket full of ice, she headed back up the stairs. Again, she checked herself in the hallway mirror. He was, she thought, quite handsome in a ‘fino’ sort of way. Once again, she licked her fingers and smoothed the rebellious little wisps of hair that curled madly at her temples. Not that it mattered. She was just a poor girl from a poor village. It was just a lucky thing that the teacher in the village school had studied in Gibraltar, and passed on the English he knew. Otherwise, she would never even get to meet all these strange and glamorous people.
She knocked on his door again. Her heart raced a little as she waited to hear his voice, but she heard nothing. She knocked again. It hadn’t been five minutes since she’d left him the first time, but perhaps he’d gone out. Leonora frowned and put her ear to the door. She heard soft mechanical clicking. He was typing. She knocked a third time.
“Yes, yes…. Don’t knock. Just come in!” A voice called out, annoyed.
Pushing the door open, she entered the room and saw the man sitting on the bed, amidst a swaddle of sheets, pecking away at the typewriter. He glanced up at her.
“Ice?” she said, holding the bucket up.
“Yes…just leave it over there,” he snapped and looked back down at the paper in the roller.
Unable to help herself, Leonora blushed and went over to the dresser. She dug around in the bucket with the tongs and dropped a cube, and then another, into the still empty glass.
“Just…just leave it!” he yelled.
The volume, the venom in his voice made her jump and then freeze. The last ice she’d put in the glass shifted and clicked. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. For absolutely no reason, she felt tears well up in her eyes.
It’s not like she wasn’t used to being shouted at. Don Ignacio did it all the time. Half the guests in the hotel thought she’d understand their English better if they shouted at the top of their lungs. She just hadn’t expected it to come from someone who looked so… cultured.
She placed the tongs back in the bucket as quietly as she could, and walked back to the door on tiptoes.
“Look, I’m very sorry. That was awful. Perdoname.”
Leonora, her hand already on the doorknob, turned her head a little, and shrugged her shoulders which made a couple of tears slip down her cheeks. “It does not matter.”
As she pulled the door to the corridor open, she heard the bedsprings squeak. “No…it does matter. Wait. Wait a minute.”
She turned to see him standing almost in front of her.
He looked awkward and embarrassed. He pushed his golden hair out of his eyes. “I’m terribly sorry. That was absolutely uncalled for.”
“It is not a problem, Senor.” A little frog had caught in her throat and it made her croak. Leonora sniffed and wiped her face with the side of flat of her hand.
“Oh, good lord. I’ve made you cry. I…” He must have taken a very large bite of the serpent’s apple, because the lump in his neck jumped up and down like a huge marble. He swallowed and swallowed. “I’m dreadfully sorry. Perdoname, Senorita.”
Leonora couldn’t help smiling. His Spanish accent was terrible. “No es nada, Senor. It’s nothing.”
“It’s just that…when I start writing… I can’t… the whole world seems to gang up and make noise. And I can’t… concentrate. You know?” He shook his head, looking completely mortified now. “No, that’s not any excuse. I am sorry.”
He rummaged around in his pants pocket and pulled out a bill, offering it to her. “Please take it. Please… as an apology.”
Leonora looked down at the bill. It was enormous—a thousand Pesetas—a ridiculous amount. “No, Senor. I can’t take that,” she snorted, smiling up at him. What kind of an imbecile gives a thousand Peseta tip? She wondered. This man needed looking after. He should have a wife or something. Maybe it would help his temper, too.
He glanced down at the bill and nodded. “Oh. Stupid. Yes.”
“Have a nice day, Senor,” said Leonora and stepped out into the hallway, closing the door behind her.
* * *
At five it was time to freshen the rooms, deliver clean towels and turn down the beds. Leonora’s mother took one side of the corridor and she the other. When she got to number seventeen, she knocked quietly. Hearing nothing, she pressed her ear to the door, straining to hear the sound of the typewriter, but there was nothing. She tried the handle, and pushed, but the door was locked. He’d gone out.
Using the passkey, she let herself into the room and began to tidy it up. It still looked like a bomb had exploded. There were papers all over the dresser and on the floor. She carefully picked her way through them. At first, she thought she should gather up all the papers and put them into one neat pile on the dresser, but as she looked, she saw that the top page of each little mountain was titled: Chapter One, Chapter Two, and so on. So, taking care not to actually relocate anything, she just straightened each pile and left it where it was, with the pages in the same order, only slightly neater.
“What are you doing, Leonora?” said her mother, standing in the doorway. “Just put them all together, over there.”
“No, Mama. He’s a writer. These are chapters of a book. We must leave them where they are.”
“Que cosa mas rara!” muttered her mother. “Well, see what you can do with the bed. You’re going to have to move that silly machine, and change the sheets. He wouldn’t let me clean the room this morning, and they’re dirty. And bring down that tray.” She pointed at the empty bottle of water, the glass and the ice bucket on the dresser.
Her mother pulled two sheets and a pillowcase off the cleaning cart along with a pair of clean towels, and dropped them all at the foot of the bed. “Don’t dawdle, Leonora. We need to set the tables in the dining room before six.”
Leonora heard the squeak of the cleaning cart as her mother took it down the hallway. She went to the bed and carefully lifted the open case, with the portable typewriter inside it, and moved it over to the nightstand, without closing it. There was a leaf of paper in the roller, already half-typed. She looked at the words written there.
*Her ebony hair fell in dark curtains around her face as she straddled the man’s body. Her full, creamy breasts began to heave as she lowered herself onto his…*
“And don’t read that man’s writing, child,” her mother called down the corridor. “God only knows what kind of filthy stuff those foreigners write.”
Leonora’s cheeks were burning. She sighed and pulled herself away from the page. Climbing onto the bed, she began to pull at the sheets, stripping it. The scent of him wafted up as she wadded the dirty linen into a bundle and carried them to the door, dropping them out in the hallway.
After making up the bed, she turned the side down neatly, smoothing it with her hand, and went into the bathroom. It was really quite neat in there. She changed the towels, arranging the new ones on the rails so that they hung evenly, as her mother had taught her.
There was nothing much of him in the bathroom: just a safety razor, a shaving brush, and a toothbrush. It occurred to her that she would have liked something of his, something small that he wouldn’t miss, but there was nothing she could take without it being noticed. There was nothing in the least bit unnecessary.
She’d never taken anything from a guest’s room before. She knew it was wrong, and forbidden, and that she could be fired if she was caught. But an overwhelming need took hold of her. Something, anything of his.
When she saw the wastebasket she smiled. Inside was a single crumpled sheet of typing paper. Leonora didn’t stop to read what was written there. She simply smoothed the page out against her chest, folded it up into a little square. She thought for a moment. Not in her pocket—what if she forgot to take it out, and her mother found it when she washed her uniform? She quickly opened one button at the top of her uniform and, with her heart beating like it would explode, tucked the little wad of paper inside her bra. The corners of it pricked at her skin. Perhaps the words on the page were as filthy as her mother warned. It made her shudder just to think of it.
* * *
The restaurant had filled up, and Don Ignacio had asked Leonora if she could stay and help serve. “Tell that greedy mother of yours that I’ll pay you an extra 100 pesetas if you do.”
A hundred pesetas wasn’t anything to sniff at. Leonora had agreed. She changed her cap and her apron and went into the dining room. It was very busy indeed. A bus had arrived that afternoon from Cordoba, with thirty sunburned Danes on board.
As she worked, Leonora kept her eye out for the man in room seventeen. She hesitantly called him John, in her head, and it felt good. As she ferried plates to tables, and helped explain the offerings on the menu in English, the little sharp package in her bra pinched at her skin. It prompted her to repeat his name, again and again in her head. All she could think about was getting home, and reading it in private.
As the dinner crowd cleared and the waiters began to clear the tables and set them for breakfast, he walked in. His clothes were dusty and from the way he walked, Leonora suspected he’d been to the bar down in the village. She heard a waiter tell him that dinner was over.
“Oh…damn. Don’t you have anything left?”
Leonora made her way over to his table and told the waiter not to worry. “The kitchen is closed, Senor. But… I can ask the cook to make you an omelet if you want. He knows me.”
The man grinned. “You seem to have connections. You’re a good friend to have.”
“It’s no problem.”
“You said that before,” the man said, colouring a little. “I’m sorry to impose on you again.”
Blushing, Leonora nodded and rushed into the kitchen. Fernando, the cook, was already shouting at the kitchen staff to clean the counters and the stoves. She walked up to him, letting her hips swing as she went. Fernando was always making eyes at her, and though he disgusted her, she’d used her charms with him to cadge a meal in the late afternoon, if she’d missed the staff lunch.
“Preciosa, what can I do for you?” Fernando asked, leering.
Leonora put on her best helpless look. “I’m so hungry, Fernando. And I didn’t have anything to eat all day,” she simpered.
“Give me a little kiss, and I’ll make you anything you want. But not the sole—the sole is off.”
She grinned. “A kiss? What if my mother heard about it. She’d kill me. And your wife? What would she say if she heard I’d been kissing you?” she teased.
“Just a little one, right here.” Fernando pointed at his pockmarked cheek.
Leonora suppressed a cringe. “Well, okay. But only if you make me one of your special, fantastic omelets. And some Manchego cheese on the side. And maybe a little salad?”
“How about a little chilled champagne and some caviar to go with it?” The cook licked his lips. “But that would cost you more, Leonorita.”
“N-no… Just the omelet, I think.”
Fernando stood there for a moment, unmoving. “Well?”
“Kiss. The kiss first.”
Leonora cocked her eyebrow with suspicion. He’d want five more if she didn’t make him cook the omelet first. “Not until after, Fernando. What if you cook it badly? Then where would I be?”
He shrugged and pulled out a frying pan. “You’re just like your mother in the market, Leonora. Always the hard bargain.”
When the dish was ready, and she’d added a bread roll, some cheese and a little salad to the plate, Leonora stood on her tiptoes and pecked the cook on the cheek. Before she could stop him, he’d grabbed her around her waist and given her bum a hard, mean squeeze. “Cock tease,” he hissed in her ear.
Wriggling out of his grasp, she slapped him hard on the arm. “You’re such a pig, Fernando.” She took the plate and hurried out of the kitchen.
“You can’t stay a virgin forever,” yelled the cook.
“Well, Mary did. Maybe I can, too.” She would have liked to tell him that, if it was a choice between dying a virgin and Fernando, she was sure to be sainted, but she didn’t. Who knew when she’d need another omelet?
* * *
Back in the deserted dining room, Leonora set the plate in front of the man from room seventeen. “There you go,” she said with some pride.
“De nada.” She gave a little curtsy and felt the square of paper prick at her skin. “Good night,” she said, and turned, heading for the doors to the lobby.
Leonora turned and laughed. “I can’t get you anything else, Senor. It would cost me my…” she searched for the right word in English, “… honour.”
“Well, I wouldn’t want to put that in any jeopardy. But…would you sit with me while I eat? I promise not to endanger your honour.”
She glanced around, and out the glass doors into the lobby. She was almost sure that Don Ignacio would be livid if he caught her sitting at a table with a patron. But the lobby was empty. All the noise was coming from the outdoor patio that overlooked the sea. Her boss was probably out there, rooking the Danes for all they were worth.
Crossing the dining room, she smiled and took the chair opposite. “Alright, but just for a little while.”
For a while, she just watched him eat. Then he looked up from his plate. “Have you forgiven me, for this morning?”
“I don’t know why you should.”
“You’re a famous writer. Everyone knows they all have terrible tempers. It’s part of their artistic nature,” she said knowledgeably.
“I’m not a famous writer. I haven’t published anything yet.”
“Oh…no?” Leonora thought for a moment. “Well, you will be.”
She thought a little more. “I’m sure you will. People always want to read about men and women, and love.”
He cocked his head and swallowed the piece of bread he was chewing. Leonora watched his large Adam’s apple bob. She liked it. It made her feel all tingly inside. “What makes you think that is what I write about?”
Suddenly, Leonora blushed. “I… I don’t know.” Unconsciously, her hand flew to her chest and pressed at the fold of paper there. Even though she didn’t know what was on it, she remembered the words she’d seen on the piece of paper in the typewriter. “I… I thought all writers wrote about that sort of thing. Don’t you?”
The smile that spread across his face was different from the smiles she’d seen before. It was not so open, a little bit cruel. “What’s your name?”
“I’m John. John Gerald Wilson.”
“Encantada, Senor Wilson.”
“Do you clean my room, Leonora?”
“Sometimes. I really should go now. My mother,” she struggled to get to her feet.
“Have you read my writing?”
“Of…of course not. I’d never do anything…”
“You did, didn’t you?”
“No. No. I didn’t. I didn’t read anything,” she protested, and fled across the dining room and out the doors.
Leonora didn’t bother changing out of her uniform. She rushed out of the hotel’s staff entrance and took the dark road down to the village at a run.
When she arrived home, her mother tried to persuade her to eat something, but Leonora had no appetite. She pleaded tiredness and went to her room.
Later that night, much later, after she’d fallen asleep and woken to the sound of the crickets, she turned the small lamp by her beside on, unfolded the little wad of paper she’d stolen, and began to read.
Some of the words were unknown to her. She paged through her tiny school dictionary, but they weren’t there. Perhaps he’d made them up and they didn’t exist. But even without those words, Leonora knew what the writing was about. It was about a man and a woman, and what they did together. Reading it made the space between her legs moist, and then ache. She re-read the words over and over. Each time, the painful twinge between her legs got sharper and only went away when she folded up the little paper, turned her light out, and pressed the palm of her hand down there, rubbing it gently until she fell asleep.
Her dreams were full of strange things. They were full of him—the man in number seventeen—and being tangled up in the white sheets of his bed. She felt the weight of his typewriter pressing down on her chest, and then it was him and he was saying words she didn’t understand. But somehow she knew they were filthy, and awful, and wonderful. And then she was the woman with the dark hair, and it was her face the hair framed like curtains, and she climbed on top of him, naked and her breasts…
* * *
“Number seventeen. Cafe con leche, Leonora,” barked Don Ignacio, as she was dusting the tables in the lobby.
It was what she’d been dreading to hear. After last night, Leonora was not at all sure she ever wanted to see the man from number seventeen again. He’d taken pleasure in making her uncomfortable once he realized she’d read some his papers. Thinking about him sent little electric eels up her spine, but actually seeing him terrified her.
“No, please Don Ignacio. I’m so busy here. Please ask someone else.”
“Do you want to find another job? I’m sure your mother would love to hear that, you stupid girl!”
Leonora shook her head. “I don’t have time, Don Ignacio. I have to dust.”
“Don’t be silly, I’ve already called the terrace bar. It’s ready, just take the tray up to the room.”
“Or find another job.”
Leonora tucked the duster into her pocket and bowed her head. “No, Don Ignacio. I’ll go.”
The tray, with a cup of coffee and a little jug of hot milk, was waiting for her on the bar. She made sure there was a spoon and a sugar packet on the tray, and took it up the stairs to the first floor. The corridor seemed to stretch out before her forever. Her heart was pounding against her ribs, and she could hear it like a roar in her ears. When at last she reached his door, she took a deep breath and knocked quietly.
There was no answer, but she could hear the now familiar clatter of typewriter keys. With a trembling hand, she turned the handle on the door, and entered the room. He was sitting on the bed, his back propped up with pillows against the headboard and the typewriter on his lap, working. His face was a mask of concentration.
Leonora let out a quiet breath and, as stealthily as she could, walked over and set the tray down on the dresser. Just as quietly, she retraced her steps to the door and began to pull it closed behind her.
She didn’t turn around. Her heart, which had only just stopped racing, sped up again.
“How are you today?”
“Very well, Senor. And you?”
“Would you do me a favour?”
Leonora tried to fix a casual smile on her face and failed. She turned to face him. “What would you like, Senor?”
“Will you read something for me?” He took hold of the sheet of paper in the machine and pulled it out. It made a loud zipping sound.
She laughed nervously. “Oh, Senor, please. I don’t read English very well.”
“Of course you do,” he said, moving the typewriter and climbing off the bed. He walked towards her, the sheet of paper held in front of him.
“No, no I don’t. I just speak it a little.”
“Don’t be silly. Your English is excellent. Come on, please.”
Leonora looked down at her feet. Suddenly she realized she had forgotten to ask him to sign the bill. “Please, Senor. You have to sign the bill. I have a lot of work to do.”
“If you read the page, I’ll sign the bill. How’s that?” Even though she couldn’t see his face, she knew he was smiling. She could hear it in his voice.
“But why, Senor. What does it matter if I read it? I’m just…”
The sheet of paper slid between her eyes and the floor. “It won’t take you a moment, I promise.”
Taking the typed sheet in her hand, she shook her head without looking up at him, and started to read. It was the same thing she read the night before, only slightly different. A man and a woman in an alleyway. They were making love. Behind her, Leonora heard the door close, but she didn’t look up—she couldn’t—because the page had captured her. They were kissing, and the man began to touch her. First on the neck and then on the lips, and he pushed her against the wall of a building, and pressed himself against her.
Leonora felt a hand on her arm. It guided her to the bed, and she sat down on the edge of it and kept reading. There were so many details. The woman’s breath was fast, and urgent and she begged him to take her—right there, in the street. The man reached beneath her skirt, and pulled her underwear aside, pushing his fingers into her… that word again, the one she didn’t know… well, it wasn’t too hard to figure out. And the woman groaned and rocked her hips as he plunged his fingers into her until she began to shudder and then…
The page was finished. Leonora looked up, only then realizing that she herself was breathing heavily. As she got to her feet, she felt a slick wetness trickle down between her thighs.
“Well,” the writer asked, sipping his coffee. “What do you think?” He placed the cup back on the dresser, and crossed his arms, looking expectant.
She had no idea what to say. And anyway, couldn’t he see what she thought? The skin of her cheeks were burning, she bit her lip and shook her head.
“You don’t like it.”
“No. I do. I… I just don’t know how to talk about writing.”
He walked towards her, shoving his hands in his pockets. His bare feet made no sound on the tiles. “You can tell me, you know, if you don’t like it. It won’t hurt my feelings at all.”
“It’s not that…” said Leonora. She couldn’t even begin to find the words for the way the writing made her feel. She couldn’t tell him. Not in English, or Spanish or any other language. There weren’t words beyond words…were there? There were only feelings, and actions.
Without hesitating, Leonora turned to him and put her arms around his neck. He was tall, and she had to reach up to do it. Pulling his face down to hers, she kissed him. Not on the cheek, like she did to Fernando, but on the lips. She pressed her mouth to his and gave him the sweetest, most passionate kiss she knew how to give. Not that she’d kissed that many men, but she’d seen it in films.
She felt his arms go around her waist and pull her close. The heat of his body made her skin tingle and the smell of him made her throb. His lips opened and plucked at hers. Then he pulled his head up, but he didn’t let her go.
“Well! That was the nicest piece of criticism I’ve ever had. Would you like to tell me what you thought of it again?” His voice smiled, but his eyes didn’t. His eyes were full of something much more serious.
Leonora nodded and pushed her lips against his again, this time with more urgency. She was remembering the way the words had made her feel: hot, and coiled and like a bottle of fizzy water about to explode. And this time, she felt his tongue slide like a lizard’s tail between her lips, teasing her to open her mouth and take it in. She could not deny him; she wouldn’t deny him anything, not after what she’d read.
Not when he began to unbutton her uniform, or when he pulled the little white hat off her head, trailing hair-pins behind it; not when he untied her apron and took her dress off, not when he lifted her off her feet and lay her on his bed.
“Like the woman in your story, I want to be her.”
“You already are,” he whispered, and slid his hand into the heat between her legs. His fingers slipped into secret places where no one but Leonora had ever been.
“No…I’m not. Not yet.”
“You will be.”
He slid into Leonora and broke her sweetly, and then remade her.
* * *
On a Saturday in July of 1985, Leonora strolled down the Paseo de la Castellana, in Madrid, window-shopping. Her mother had died unexpectedly the year before and, with nothing left to keep her in the south, she had taken a job at a plush hotel in the capital.
She stopped in front of the window of a huge English bookstore and read through the new titles on display. One, a simple book with a plain white cover and black lettering caught her eye: “Spanish Flowers,” by J.G.Wilson.
Leonora knew it wasn’t really about flowers. It was about men and women and love.