An old man, small and hunchbacked, gave us a white smile. He was short and wiry of stature and he wore a white robe and a red woollen cap. “You want tea?” he asked.
“Hands up for tea,” said the leader. Seven hands went up. She translated seven into Arabic but the old man had already set out the correct number of glasses. He began to pour rust-coloured tea from a huge silver pot.
“Here,” I said, “I’ll have mine in this,” plonking a porcelain mug on the table in front of him. He looked up and the eyes twinkled in his aged face, as wrinkled and brown as an out-of-date date, but he said nothing and dutifully filled my cup.
I sat with Olive at the side of a blue-tiled swimming pool, half full of sand. A fresh breeze blew across the desert into our faces and, bit by bit, the sand it carried continued its takeover of the dilapidated hotel.
“You know, Tony, it’s nice to have met you.”
I smiled. “Likewise.” Olive was maybe ten years older than me, still good-looking, tanned, soft and strong at the same time. A good companion to have on a walking holiday populated with loners and weirdos.
We chatted about this and that, the state of the hotel and whether it’d be possible to restore it. “The desert wants its land back. It has a mind and a will of its own,” she said.
I was a farmer, arable and dairy cattle, used to co-operating with the land. It was no use fighting it. “I can understand that.” I brought us both refills from the bent old man’s enormous tea pot, then Olive asked me if anything strange, maybe supernatural, had ever happened to me. I laughed. “Not that I can think of, I’m not one for mumbo jumbo.”
Olive’s wide blue eyes twinkled. “Well, I’ll tell you anyway. See what you think.”
“Be my guest.”
“Well, where I live, there’s a playing field opposite, a small one with an area of swings and slides for kiddies.”
I sipped my tea, it was hot and sweet.
“Anyway, there’s a path through it to a supermarket, Tesco’s. So, a couple of months ago I was thinking about a holiday. I fancied Morocco, but I didn’t have the money. I looked online, started looking at walking holidays here.”
Olive gave a wry smile. “I’m not religious, but I started praying for help to come here. It sounds silly, but I thought I had nothing to lose, y’know.”
I nodded, interested now.
“So, one night it was pouring with rain and I saw this man going down the path to the supermarket, across the field. There are a couple of street lamps.”
“Maybe he wanted a tin of beans.”
Olive smiled. “No, this was late, gone midnight and Tesco’s shuts at ten.”
“Perhaps he was just going for a walk.”
“In the pouring rain? Well, that’s what I wondered. But then I saw him again about two nights later. He just seemed to go down the path and I didn’t see him come back, I kept looking out.”
I sat back, enjoying the sun on my face, the warm fresh breeze on my skin and Olive’s company, just listening to her story.
“Anyway, I got more curious, seeing him going down that path most nights. He always wore a long black coat, a mackintosh I suppose it was, and a black hat with a wide brim. That’s unusual nowadays.”
“Sounds like you were looking out of your window a lot.”
“Actually, that’s the point, I hardly ever did, yet when I did, I’d see him!”
That was odd. I rubbed my chin, thinking I could do with a shave.
“So after about two weeks of this I decided to follow him.”
“As you do.”
Olive pulled a face. “So, one night, I looked out getting on for half past eleven, and there he was, going down the path across the field towards Tesco. There was no moon and it was really dark, even with the two street lamps, they hardly seemed to throw any light. I took a torch and my jacket and nipped out after him, I wasn’t sure what I’d say, if anything, but I just felt I had to go, d’you know what I mean?”
“Not really, I think I’d have gone to bed myself.”
Olive held her blonde hair back, scrunching it into a pony tail and securing it with a band. She suddenly looked much older. “Well, I went after him, no sign of anyone, anywhere. Then on the way home I found a wallet on the path. There was a bus pass inside, a man’s name and address. And a lot of money, fifty-pound notes.”
“You don’t see those often.”
“You certainly don’t. Anyway, the next day there was a report of a man killed. He’d just walked onto the motorway, about midnight, hit by a lorry apparently. No one knew who he was but it said he’d been wearing a black raincoat and they thought he’d been wearing a hat. They found one nearby.”
“What about the wallet?”
“Well, the bus pass said a Mr Rafael and the address was in my town, number 27 Elysian Fields it was.”
“So, what did you do?”
“Took it to the police, of course. They said there was no Elysian Fields and it turned out the bus company had no record of ever having issued that pass!”
“And the money?”
“Come on, our fearless leader’s waving. She’s getting everyone together.” Olive drained the dregs from her glass, stood up and winked. “Oh, the money, well I’m here aren’t I?”
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