(photo by Jim Marshall)
Ana and David Alexander Grant run a mountain pension in Southeast Europe. Life in the back of beyond is not without incident.
The helicopter began circling above us during breakfast. It was very, very loud, which didn’t go down at all well with the two couples from Paris.
The Parisians had arrived the previous day, one couple just before lunch, one just after. They didn’t show any sign of wanting to establish a rapport with one another on the basis of common nationality. Of course, just because they happened to have come from the same city to our little bit of the Dinaric Alps doesn’t mean they had to become bosom buddies. Maybe they left France to get away from other French people. Both couples had indicated dietary requirements that were a tad health faddish (skimmed milk and such) and when they set off to hike (in different directions) they were in full kit.
The Parisians sat at opposite corners of the dining room. The third corner, next to the door onto the terrace, was occupied by Mr Archer from London. He was quite a different kettle of fish.
Fifties, quiet, and rather reserved, Mr Archer wore clothes too heavy for the season. He spent his first day (admittedly a rather wet and overcast day) in the lounge reading one of our Agatha Christies, and making notes from time to time in a little black book.
“He’s got a little black book,” I told Ana.
“There’s something dodgy about him.” I had Mr Archer down as an arms dealer or a spy.
“You think there’s something dodgy about everybody.” (This is true: I do.) “Has he done anything bad?”
In the past we’ve had guests whose behavior was not just bad but decidedly odd, like the pair who spray-painted an antique armchair bright pink.
“No,” I said.
“Well, just let him enjoy his detective novel!”
On the second day Mr Archer went out and didn’t come back for lunch.
“Where’s he gone?” I asked Ana.
She was exasperated: “Why are you obsessed with Mr Archer?”
“I have a bad feeling.”
He returned at dinner-time, looking as if he’d just popped round the corner.
“That’s it!” I said as we watched Mr Archer take his seat in the corner of the dining room. “He’s up here in the back of beyond to meet a contact . . . on the quiet!”
“What on earth are you talking about?”
“He certainly didn’t go for a hike in those shoes. I think he’s had a rendezvous, a clandestine meeting, maybe in one of the other hotels.”
Ana shook her head. “He’s just an ordinary bloke who came for a bit of peace and quiet! Anyway,” she added, “he asked one of the French ladies about a particular trail this morning and she was quite rude.”
“Told him he’d need the right gear to reach that particular bit of the mountain. Gave him an up and down look too!”
Ana has a gift for inventing English idioms. I could imagine the French lady looking Mr Archer up and down.
The third day Mr Archer stayed in and read his (our) Agatha Christie (the one where Miss Marple rescues Colonel Bantry after he’s been wrongly accused of murder) and the next morning – as the French were at breakfast (still eschewing even a soupcon of Gallic solidarity) and Mr Archer had just taken his place in the third corner – the helicopter started circling overhead.
“It’s military!” I said, looking up from the door of the terrace. There were NATO markings on the khaki underside. “Good heavens!” (I appeared to be the only person getting excited). “It’s landing!”
The helicopter came to rest on our terrace. I’ve never heard such a racket. The Parisians looked at me with irritation, as though I’d ordered up the helicopter just to annoy them.
Mr Archer got up.
The helicopter kept its rotor blades whizzing. A man in a khaki jumpsuit and an enormous helmet with a black visor jumped out and began to walk towards the hotel.
Mr Archer came out onto the terrace.
I began to follow him.
“Where are you going?” Ana hissed.
“The helicopter’s on my terrace!” I said (with a fitting degree of proprietorial hauteur).
The soldier, his face still obscured by the black visor, saluted Mr Archer.
I caught up. “Can I help?” I asked.
It was Mr Archer who answered.
“I’m terribly sorry,” he said. “I hadn’t expected my things to be brought here in quite such dramatic fashion.”
“Your things?” I had to shout over the noise of the rotor blades.
The man in khaki held up a black rucksack and passed it to Mr Archer.
“My walking things,” Mr Archer explained, and for the first time in our short acquaintance he smiled. “I had forgotten to bring them with me!”
The soldier saluted again and left. When the helicopter was airborne, it swooped down the valley with the sort of dramatic flourish you see in James Bond films. Show off! I thought. I looked back towards the dining room – but the French were still refusing to be astonished.
“So he’s not a spy,” Ana said.
“A colonel in the Royal Engineers, apparently. They flew his things out to the NATO base – a perk of the job, it seems.”
Just then, one of the French couples emerged from the dining room.
“The noise is very disturbing!” the lady remarked.
“The colonel forgot his hiking boots!” I said. “He needs them for the more demanding bits of the mountain.”