country, whereas they, the British, were the victors of the world war and were taller and more cultivated, richer and smarter. They were still, for the most part, taller but that was about all.
Cranes and scaffolding dominated the cityscape making Madrid feel almost Chinese. The prosperity was almost tangible. In its wake came organized crime. Central and South America spoke the same language and came with drugs. Eastern Europe provided tens of thousands of illegal immigrants, many of them subsisting on crime, mostly petty. Prostitution and pickpocketing were rife. Lawlessness had become almost endemic. A natural Hispanic disdain for such puritan ethics had been reined in under the Generalissimoâs regime, but, some argued, freedom had bred licence. The old certainties had died; the church was in decline; the country was in a state of flux.
It took about half an hour to reach the city centre, where they encountered a traffic jam engendered by what appeared to be a burst water main. It took them another half-hour to reach their hotel, which was old-fashioned and faded, with revolving doors, concierges in top hats and gold-braided topcoats, aspidistras and antimacassars, poodles and women with wigs as tightly-curled as their dogsâ coats. The vestibule smelt of mint and mothball. Treatment from the receptionist seemed to be identical for Contractor and for his master and masterâs wife, but the similar warmth of greeting and width of smile didnât disguise the fact that Contractor had a standard room and the Bognors a suite. Back to class distinctions.
After they had checked in and acclimatized, Simon left Monica to unpack, took the elevator to the lobby, met Harvey, returned to the waiting Mercedes and drove on to Guardia Civil headquarters.
Carlos Azuela was waiting on the pavement outside. He smelt faintly of Serrano ham, manzanilla, untipped cigarette and aftershave. A very Spanish smell, thought Bognor. He had a dark five oâclock stubble which looked as if it had been cultivated with care and attention. He and Harvey embraced and kissed each other on both cheeks in a manner which Bognor found as mildly foreign as the teniente âs smell.
They took the lift to the top floor where Teniente Azuela escorted them to the Admiralâs office which was large and enjoyed a view over the city rooftops. There was a boardroom next door, a terrace outside sliding glass doors, and a large photograph of King Juan Carlos over the Admiralâs desk which was cluttered with papers and family photographs. The Admiral had several children and many grandchildren. Apart from this Bognor felt immediately and instinctively at home.
He and the Admiral embraced, a little more rigidly than Harvey and Carlos, then withdrew to inspect each other for signs of wear and tear, and to smile appreciatively. Both seemed quite reassured to find their counterpart still breathing.
âLong time, as you say in your great country,â said the Admiral, âno see.â
Bognor nodded. âThat Helsinki conference about whatever it was supposed to be about.â
The Admiral laughed.
âConferences are about corridors,â he said, âabout footnotes not agendas.â His English was disturbingly immaculate and idiomatic, a legacy of time spent on an exchange assignment with the British Home Fleet at Devonport dockyard. He had at the same time acquired an improbable affection for Cornish pasties and Plymouth Argyle Football Club. He was a Galician and therefore a Celt. His Spanishness was of a very particular and unusual variety, unlike Azuela who was from somewhere near Seville.
Coffee was produced: hot, strong, sticky-sweet, almost Graeco-Turk. The Spaniards smoked; the Brits, who had given up long before, feigned indifference and forbore.
Presently after a few minutes of ice-breaking catch-up conversation the Admiral drained his cup, smacked his hands together, and proposed a move to the boardroom next
Jean-Christophe Rufin, Adriana Hunter