It was December, 1982. Or maybe January, 1983. Since June of 1981, when I left university, I’d worked first for a commodities exchange (every time I answered the phone “Coffee, Sugar, Cocoa,” my best friend sniggered, “Hello, Sugar Tits!”) as their librarian – ie jumped up file clerk – and next as an administrative assistant for a firm of architects. There, during a stint filling in for the company’s receptionist, I had to answer the phone, “James Stewart Polshek and Partners,” which believe you me was no small feat with three lines buzzing.
Stuff happened, involving accommodation and restlessness. I took some of my savings, made a half-assed scheme with an acquaintance, and set off for Europe for a six month trip. If the timing puzzles you, remember that in 1977, when I left high school, there was no such thing as a Gap Year in the American psyche.
Having done my Junior Year Abroad at Durham University, I had friends in London and the Netherlands, and imposed myself (and my mates) on them as much as possible. Then we set out for Paris, and after a bonkers time with some Algerian “hoteliers” running the Hotel Pelican (yeah, really, and it’s still there), a visit to the countryside was next on what passed for our agenda.
At some point I insisted we visit Montauban, birthplace of the great Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. I fell for him big time on seeing his portrait Princesse de Broglie at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Yes, I did mention it in the previous post. It’s a great museum.)
On any trip to the Met I visited the princess, just as you would an old friend. I’d stand there drooling, clasping my hands tightly, because what I really wanted, quite urgently, was to reach out and touch it. Look at the satin: so realistically tactile. How did he do that?
My friend and I arrived late to Montauban, and being utterly skint and scrimping, did our usual trick of finding a cheap hotel room in a dodgy part of town. Near the train station if memory serves, possibly even called The Station Hotel. We were assigned a large room with a double bed and a small window set under a sloping eave. Through a door was an airless space containing bidet and a basin. The toilet was communal and down the hall.
As was also our wont, we went out that night to a local café where we each nursed a drink – I think at that stage I was on Dubonnet, which is, frankly, shocking to me now. She had a deck of cards and we played Rummy 500 and tried to look winsome enough not to get kicked out for taking up space.
That night we were accosted by some boys. Using my school girl French I translated for the group. There’s a vivid memory of one chap’s explanation that the thick gold band on his left ring finger did not mean he was married. “Maybe it has this meaning in your country, but not here, here it is just for decoration,” or words to that effect. Well, I might have been childish in my drinking habits, but puhleeease!
His blond companion was, I managed to decipher, originally from Alsace, and had been or was still in the army where, he proudly insisted, he had learned English. Dazzle us, we challenged. Turned out he’d learned some very selective English. Turned out he knew the word avocado, which would come in handy if he was ever posted to Mexico.
After much half-assed flirting we left, and back in our hotel room we shot the bolt on our door and began making ourselves ready for bed. That’s when we heard it. The whisper:
We froze. We freaked. We clung to one another in the bed, lying there fully dressed. We cursed the stupid window – too tiny for even a child to crawl through, much less two grown women hauling giant backpacks.
We tried the house phone but it was not connected to anything and there was no one on the desk, anyway. Eventually, yes, we peed in the bidet. Of course we did. Because this boy had stamina. All the rest of that night, at regular intervals, he whispered, “AhhhVoCaaaaaDo.”
While he whispered, we tiptoed around packing our bags, trying to calm one another down without making a sound. My friend had been raped during her travels before meeting up with me, and we were understandably petrified.
Came the dawn, we had not slept a wink and our nerves were frayed. Then, down the corridor came the rattle and clank of a maid beginning her daily duties, and just like that, Guacamole Boy was off and we were saved. We decided to get the hell out of Dodge while the getting was good. Do not stop at the Ingres Museum. Do not pick up 200 francs. Just GO!
Making for the door, we realised it was nothing more than a thin sheet of plywood, and the deadbolt was the flimsy variety you’d use on a bathroom. Had our stalker been more intelligent he could have been in the room straightaway. I surmise that we were saved by his lack of motivation and his blood alcohol level. And his stupidity. Did I mention that? Even through the language barrier it shone through. Forever after we called this The Night We Met a Retardo in Montauban. (Hold the letters and angry comments, it was merely a play on the name of actor Ricardo Montalban.)
Revisiting this memory after thirty years I want to scream, “Jesus Christ woman, do you know how close you came to getting yourself fucking killed?!” I do remember thinking I was going to die. I remain eternally grateful that I did not have to endure that night alone. But I can’t help laughing about it now, especially when I eat avocados.
Before leaving the US I’d sworn to my parents that I would not hitchhike. Ever. Readers, you can fill in the blanks. My friend and I, bursting with adrenalin and relief, were out on that road before the commuters had rinsed out their coffee mugs. We were picked up by a rich elderly pony breeder in a white Mercedes saloon car, travelling home from his holidays with his lively black poodle, Bibiche. But that, my friends, is a story for another day.