The Pension

by Robert Steward

Marseille, France 2000

I parked my white Mini in one of the mazy backstreets of Marseille. I wound up the window, took my bag from the passenger seat and got out of the car. In the boot and on the backseat lay all my worldly possessions: my clothes, my teaching materials, my music tapes. Locking the car door, I just hoped they would still be there the next day. 

I walked down Rue d’Amour looking for a place to stay. The sky was orange and the shadows long, the buildings a faded almond colour. The ground-floor windows had thick iron bars, and the upper floors light-blue shutters. Halfway down the sun-baked street stood a rustic-looking pension. Above the entrance was a tangle of electric cables and to the right, a wooden sign with Chambres written on it. The entrance door was open. I wasn’t sure whether to go in or not. Something held me back. Was it the paint-peeling door, the rusty door knocker, or the shadows cast on the hallway walls?

Despite my doubts, I went in. 

At the end of the hallway an old man sat behind a desk, reading a book. He was bald, tanned and wrinkled with liver spots on his face. His blue and white striped shirt buttoned to the collar.

“Oui?” he asked, putting the book down.

“Er, avez vous une chambre simple pour un nuit?” I enquired.

“A single room?” he replied in English, “Yes, of course, of course.”

“How much is it?”

“A hundred francs,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck.  

“I’ll take it,” I said, and gave him a hundred-franc note.

He scrutinised both sides of the note and put it in a drawer.

“And your passport?”

“Ah yes,” I said, forgetting you had to show identification in foreign hotels. 

 I rummaged through my bag and handed him my passport. The old man’s eyes narrowed as he studied it.

“Robert Steward?” he asked.

“Yes, that’s right.”

 He wrote my details down in a large dusty book.

 “Alors, I’ll show you the room,” he said, handing me my passport. “It’s just along here.”

The room was next to the reception at the foot of the staircase, a simple room with a single bed, a wardrobe and a washbasin. It had seen better days, but for ten pounds a night, I couldn’t complain.

“Here are your keys. This one’s for your room and this one’s for the front door.”

“And the bathroom?”

“It’s down the corridor. If you need anything, just ask,” he said and closed the door behind him.

I looked at the two large keys and weighed them in my hand; they looked ancient. 

I wonder how old this place is, I thought and put the keys in my pocket.

Feeling tired and dirty from the long drive, I decided to have a wash. The porcelain washbasin was large and thick, the taps a pewter colour. When I turned them on, air chugged through the pipework before the water gushed out.

 “Ah,” I sighed, cupping the water against my face.

 My body felt relieved and drained at the same time. In the mirror, my eyes looked bloodshot and glazed. My hair had a windswept, flyaway look about it. I tided myself up, using my hand as a comb and headed out for the evening.

The city centre could be described as a seductive, cultural melting pot, which was reflected in its cuisine. There were Spanish restaurants, Italian restaurants, Algerian, Moroccan, Tunisian restaurants, even an English tea room, and of course an abundance of French restaurants. I found myself eating a peculiar plate of spaghetti carbonara outside a bistrot, overlooking the old port. Not only was it served with cream, but nestled amongst the pasta sat a raw egg waiting to be knocked out of its shell and mixed with the rest of the dish, a culinary crossroads indeed.

Comment était votre repas?” the waiter asked.

He had dark wavy hair, brown eyes and a five o’clock shadow. His blue linen jacket and jeans made him look smart but casual.

“Très bon.” I smiled, making an okay sign with my thumb and forefinger.

Voulez-vous de dessert?” He opened out his hand towards the dessert trolley.

“Non merci, juste l’addition s’il vous plaît,” I said, waving my hand as if writing a cheque.

As the sun set behind the yachts in the harbour, I thought about the drive along the picturesque coastal roads of the Côte d’Azure, with the gorgeous mountain backdrop and breathtaking views of the sea. I took out my road map and traced the route from Monza to Barcelona; I was over halfway. The next stop would be Perpignan. Monza marked the end of the first chapter of my teaching career, while Barcelona would be the beginning of the next. I wondered what people I would meet this year, what adventures I would have.

Having settled up, I went for a stroll in the old part of the city. It was dark now, and the street lamps scattered shadows on the old buildings like silky black drapes. People sat outside the bars and cafés, chatting, drinking, smoking and watching the world go by; there was an air of sinisterness about the place, an air of mystery. Enchanting, but at the same time, a little unnerving. After meandering around and around and losing myself in the backstreets, I decided to head back. I retraced my steps to the pension, and when I eventually turned into Rue d’Amour I couldn’t help noticing the scantily clad women, lining the street. In the doorways were miniskirts, negligees, feather bowers, fishnet tights, corsets, knee-length boots.

Was it really possible I had managed to book into an establishment right in the middle of the red light district?

I walked down the street with an uneasy pang of apprehension, trying to ignore the fille de joie, but to no avail.

“Bon soir!” they said enticingly at every doorway I passed. “Comment ça va?”

This could only happen to me, I thought, unlocking the front door to the pension.

The hallway was dimly lit, the reception empty; I imagined who or what was behind each room door, afraid that one might open at any moment. I unlocked my door and fumbled for the light switch. Turning round, I suddenly froze with fear. Hundreds of cockroaches were creeping all over the wooden floor. I just stood there, petrified. Time seemed to stand still. The glare from the bare light bulb made them scatter for cover, but I knew they were there, hiding, waiting, crawling. 

Where’s the receptionist when you need him? I thought.

But what could he do anyway–spray some insect repellent? 

With no apparent alternative, I decided the best measure was to sleep with the light on. I got undressed and inspected the bed with the thoroughness of a hospital matron, hoping not to find any of the Blattidae family there. Then, I climbed into bed and looked around the room. There was no sign of them, but I still felt their presence; it filled me with revulsion. 

In bed I tossed and turned, unable to sleep, contemplating the unthinkable–I had to turn the light off. But I knew if I did, the oval, flat-bodied insects would creep out again. Just the thought of it made my stomach churn. I looked at the old-fashioned light switch. 

Just another five minutes, I thought. Maybe I’ll fall asleep by then. 

Five minutes passed. I looked up again.

No, I just can’t do it. Just another five minutes. 

Another five minutes passed. 

Oh God, I thought.

Then, without thinking, I flicked the switch and threw the bed sheets over my head. In the dark I waited, curled up like a coiled spring, my thoughts running riot, imagining the loathsome beetles crawling all over the room, all over the bed and all over me.

That night I dreamt I had been turned into a giant insect, just like in Kafka’s book Metamorphosis. But instead of being a travelling salesman as in the story, I found myself teaching a class of cockroaches the present perfect continuous. With their large staring compound eyes, wriggling legs and waving antennae, it was absolutely terrifying.

The next morning, I woke up to the sound of hissing and scuttling on the floor. I jumped out of bed and threw on some clothes. Hopping around the room and wrestling with my trousers, my body ached from the restless night before. Once dressed, I grabbed my things and left the room, leaving the key on the reception desk.

Outside the air was cool, the street deserted, the sun a red disk in the sky. Free from the bordel, I sought the sanctuary of a nearby café. It looked quaint with its little blue awning and louvre shutters. I opened the door and a bell tinkled. The café was empty. On the marble counter sat an old-fashioned cash till and a basket of croissants.

“Bonjour,” the barista said, appearing from a hanging bead curtain.

She was a middle-aged woman with a round motherly face. Two locks of curly blonde hair poked out from under her white peaked hat, and over her white blouse she wore a white apron, tied in a bow around her waist.

“Bonjour,” I replied. “Une café au lait et un croissant, si’l vous plaît.

“Tout de suite.” She smiled.

I pulled out a chair from one of the tables and sank into it with relief. As I waited for my breakfast to come, I took out my map and checked the route to Perpignan and promised myself the next hotel would definitely have an en suite bathroom and fluffy white towels!


Robert Steward teaches English as a foreign language and lives in London. He is currently writing a collection of short stories, several of which have appeared in online literary magazines, including: Scrittura, The Creative Truth, The Ink Pantry, Adelaide and The Foliate Oak. You can find them at: twitter.com/theroadtonaples

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