Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Approach to the City (5)

He awoke at first light, dressed at once, and went out to find a newspaper. Overnight the temperature had dropped to within a few degrees of freezing and there were wisps of light fog lingering above the pavement. Nothing was open in the square, but he found a little food market a block further on and bought a paper, a baguette, an apple, and a small package of butter. The heavy-set middle-aged man at the register wore a flannel cap that was much the worse for wear and looked like he was still half asleep. He put the things in a paper bag and handed them over, then sat back on his stool as if he thought he would doze off until the next customer appeared, which looked like it might not be for a while.

On his back way through the square he passed a solitary window-washer, who greeted him as effusively as if he were an old friend and then returned to his duties, working methodically and efficiently as he cleaned first one window of the tavern and then another. Two of the fingers of his right hand were missing, and he stepped over to the next storefront with a slight limp, still smiling and nodding as his new acquaintance walked on.

When he reached the pension he stowed the package on the bureau and went down to the breakfast room, newspaper in hand. He had been mistaken: there were several other guests already seated around the tables, including a young couple, but no sign of the woman who had signed him in the night before. A slight young woman with an accent that was difficult to place poured coffee for him and asked him what he'd like. He ordered eggs, sausage, and a croissant, and unfolded the paper while he waited for her return. There was nothing of note: some local elections, sports, a few snippets of international news, and the usual weddings and such. There were some letters hotly debating some kind of construction proposal, but without knowing the background he was unable to form an opinion about who was in the right. Only in the advertisements did he find something of interest. He folded a corner of the page, carefully tore off a square, and folded it neatly inside his coat pocket. The waitress brought his plate and he ate at a leisurely pace, looking out through the plate glass door into the little patio beyond, where a single white azalea, sheltered under the splayed-out limbs of what he thought might be a quince tree, was not quite ready to bloom. Three men came in, dressed in suits; he supposed they were there on a business trip or perhaps belonged to a religious group. They were chatting merrily together and bantering innocently with the waitress, who didn't quite seem to know how to respond.

He gathered his things and brought them downstairs to the reception desk to check out. When no one appeared he stuck his head into the breakfast room and caught the waitress's attention. She disappeared into the kitchen, and a moment later a thin, balding man in a dark gray turtleneck appeared, found the appropriate paperwork, asked if everything had been satisfactory, and accepted the proffered payment with a thin, distant smile. Shown the advertisement, he recognized the address and said it was not far, just a few blocks up the hill.

By now the sun had driven off the last of the fog and chill and gave promise of a fair day. There was some wind coming off the river, as there nearly always was, but it was slack this morning and barely disturbed the dust and remains of dead leaves along the sidewalks. In the ten minutes it took him to climb to his destination -- he was not far from the clock tower now, and a view of the river was opening up behind him -- he became warm enough to remove his jacket and fold it over his arm.

The street curved across the hill in a slow arc, sloping downwards and away on its distant end. There was a green embankment on the upper side, and the other was lined with uniform two-storey red brick residential buildings with yards in the back but no space between. There were a few bicycles chained to the railings in front, and a wagon and trike parked along the sidewalk, but the children he supposed were either still having breakfast or had already gone to school.

He found the number, climbed the stoop, and rang the bell. A small dog barked within but there was no answer. He waited, tried again, then took out his pen and left a note in the box saying that he would come back in the afternoon. He walked further down the street, to the point where it dipped down along a high stone wall and bent out of sight. Off the hill, inland from the river, was a low wooded valley with a patches of meadow and a few stone buildings and spires. He gazed out for a moment, then turned around, retraced his steps to the intersection of the street that climbed past the clock tower, and set his course for the top of the ridge.

(To be continued)

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