123. The Tunnel

Part 1 of a series of the same name.

I WAS TRAVELLING WITH Loic Duhamel and Miranda Sabato from Montpellier, where we had been picking grapes, to Barcelona, where Loic knew someone whose roof we could pitch our tents on until we figured out where to go next. We had to change trains at Portbou, but somewhere between Montpellier and Portbou the train stopped on the tracks for almost an hour, and when it started moving forward again it was at a crawl, so that by the time we arrived at Portbou the Spanish train that was going to take us to Barcelona had long departed. This meant that we were going to have to spend the night in Portbou. It was late evening, nearing dusk, and many of the train’s passengers were pulling out what bedding they had - sleeping bags mostly - preparing to bed down in various corners of the train station for the night. But because it was a warm night, and we could see and smell the sea, and because we were young and had just spent a fortnight in the middle of the countryside sleeping in our sleeping bags, we couldn't accept the prospect of a night spent sleeping on a waiting room bench. Loic proposed we find somewhere to drink and Miranda and I instantly agreed. Outside the train station, Portbou appeared to be a village that had been abandoned before a calamity that never arrived. We managed to hunt down an autoservei opposite the train station and bought a bottle of cheap whiskey, even though none of us really liked whiskey – I think it was more the idea of whiskey that appealed to us at that particular moment. Within minutes we regretted it, as at the next corner we found a restaurant. We were all hungry, having not eaten since morning, and as our pockets were filled with grape-picking money we decided to eat. Inside, when the waiter came to our table we pointed to the bottle and Miranda asked him – in Italian, as none of us could speak Spanish, let alone Catalan – if we could drink the whiskey. He replied in French – it was a border town after all – telling us that we should put the bottle away lest the owner see it. He seemed to be genuinely frightened of the owner, but minutes later he returned to our table with four glasses and an ice bucket. He asked Miranda for the whiskey bottle, poured four glasses full of whiskey, hid the whiskey bottle in the ice bucket and then drank one of the glasses himself. This continued for the rest of our meal: every ten minutes or so, the waiter returned, poured himself another shot of whiskey, threw it down his throat and went about his business. While we were steadily becoming drunk, the waiter himself betrayed no sign of the slightest intoxication. Meanwhile, Loic, Miranda and I ate handsomely, and during the meal Loic, who had studied philosophy, told us about K.A. Stampflinger, about whom I knew nothing and Miranda knew next to nothing. It was in Portbou that Stampflinger had been buried, said Loic, although the circumstances of his death were a mystery. Some people believe he committed suicide, some people believe he was murdered. But who could have murdered him?, asked Miranda. Any number of people, replied Loic. He may have been murdered by the Spanish, who were sympathetic to the Germans, or by the French, who were allies of the Germans, by the Germans themselves, or by Soviet assassins who were known to target artists and intellectuals. But, continued Loic, that is mere idle speculation. Far more interesting are the rumours that Stampflinger was in possession of an unpublished manuscript at the time of his death, a heavy manuscript in a briefcase he carried with considerable effort over the mountain. A witness later said he seemed to prize that manuscript above his own life. Some believe it was a final copy of his unfinished masterwork about the arcades of Paris, others that it was a novel he had been secretly working on for years. At any rate, the manuscript is now lost. Records show that it may have been found in the archives of the court of Figueres in 1975, as the Franco regime was collapsing, but that it was badly damaged by water and rats and subsequently destroyed. By midnight, we were the only remaining customers in the restaurant, with Loic regaling us with the sad tale of the death of K.A. Stampflinger. The waiter joined us at our table, introduced himself as Roger and asked us what we were doing in Portbou. We told him we were waiting for the morning train and not in the slightest bit sleepy, and he invited us to a party. He gave us his address and told us to meet him there in an hour, as he needed to visit some friends of his on his way home. To get to his apartment, he said, we would have to walk through the tunnel. Which tunnel?, we asked. The tunnel next to the train station, he said, the tunnel that passes under the train station, the tunnel that leads to the heart of the town, and to the sea. We hadn’t seen a tunnel, but we agreed to meet Roger at his apartment in an hour.