134. The Lost Manuscript

Part 2 of the 'Tunnel' series. (Previously.)

I HAVE SPENT THE better part of half my life going over the events of that night, and I believe it all began in the tunnel. The town, it is well known, is built on the side of a mountain that plunges directly into the sea. Its railway station is larger than the size of the town would warrant, but only because it is a border town, and the rail gauge in Spain and Portugal is wider than the rest of Europe. To reach the town, one must walk through a tunnel, built in the late nineteenth century, that runs under the train station. The tunnel itself is divided in two: one half is a causeway for a river that runs whenever it rains, the other is shared by pedestrians and parked cars. Upon exiting the tunnel, one enters directly into the town, into the thick of the town, so to speak. On a typical night, the town is deserted at nightfall, as are most Europeans towns of this size and type; however, on the night in question the town was heaving with festive activity. It was the town’s annual fair, and everyone in the town, it seemed, was out on the streets, seated in the main at a long trestle table covered with a white napkin on which were piled half-eaten plates of all kinds of foods and many bottles of wine, mostly empty. As we had found them already several hours into their revelry, the townsfolk were already in festive mood, welcoming us to join the festivities as long-lost friends are welcomed. We never made it to Roger’s apartment, but he found us nevertheless, appearing put out by something, perhaps by the fact that we hadn’t stuck to our agreement, but at any rate his was the only disagreeable face to be seen, and even his pouting didn’t last long, so infectious was the spirit of frivolity and enjoyment. All through the night, Roger stayed by our side, like a guard dog, perhaps, or like a supplicant. At times it even appeared as if he was acting as a buffer between us and the locals, especially Miranda, who as always drew more than her fair share of male attention. Finally when the revelry had died down, and we were among the few people still out on the street in the middle of the night, he asked us once more if we would go back to his apartment, he had something very important he wanted to say to us. But so well had we been looked after by our hosts that we were reluctant to move: there were still a number of bottles of wine to be drunk, and the night was warm, and the sea was within view, and dawn – and the next train to Barcelona – was only a couple of hours away. I told him to relax, that whatever it was that he wanted to tell us he could tell us here. Yes, echoed Felix, what secret could be so important that we would want to leave this happy scene for a stranger’s apartment on a night as warm and fragrant as this one? I have something you may want to see, said Roger. We asked him what it was, but he insisted that we should go up to his apartment to see it. Miranda said he would have to tell us what it was, and then we would decide if it was worth breaking up the party for. He let out a frustrated sigh and said, in a low voice but so that all of us could hear him, that he had heard us talking about K.A. Stampflinger, and that he had something of Stampflinger’s that we might like to see. What is it?, asked Miranda. A manuscript, replied Roger, Stampflinger’s final manuscript, the lost manuscript. Felix laughed, and Miranda also laughed, but I refrained from laughing. Two hours later, while we were walking back through the tunnel to catch the morning train to Barcelona, I told Felix and Miranda I had decided to stay here in Portbou. In the course of that night, I had undergone something of a transformation, the natural result of which was I had decided that I would not be continuing my journey with them, that I needed to stay on in Portbou, even if it was just for a day or two. I gave them the name of a friend in Barcelona – he’s waiting for you, I said, call him when you arrive. This was in 1982. I have lived in this region ever since – not in Portbou, as back then I couldn’t speak Spanish, let alone Catalan. I settled over the border, in Perpignan, where I joined the police force, where I have worked ever since. But my focus has always been Portbou, and that manuscript. Of course, at the time, I had no idea that this would be the end of the road for me. You could say that even then, that morning, as we walked through the tunnel a second time, which is to say in the opposite direction, the seed of a lifelong obsession had already been planted. After Felix and Miranda had left, I turned around and set about trying to find Roger. I thought I had, in my pocket, the napkin upon which he had written his address. It was only once I had passed through the tunnel a third time that I went through all my pockets and realised, panic-stricken, that I was mistaken. I did not have the napkin. I did not have the address. And, above all, I did not have the manuscript. Since then, I have had many occasions to regret that error. By the time I found Roger, later that day, he was lying in a morgue in Figueres. The cause of death was deemed an overdose of various narcotics. As for Felix and Miranda, I left messages with my friend in Barcelona but they never contacted him. Years later, Felix tracked me down in Perpignan. He wrote me a letter, telling me that he and Miranda had married, and were now living in Genoa, where Miranda’s family was from, bringing up their two children, and remembering me and our travels together occasionally, particularly our night in Portbou, and if ever I should find myself in the region, et cetera. I promised myself I would write back to them promptly, but it slipped my mind, and by now it is probably too late.