When I last left the reader, we had just entered a hotel room that was demonstrably not our own.
We did a double-take. Checked the room number. Correct. Wrong floor? Nope. And if it was the wrong room, why did the key work?
“Why are you in our room?” asked Jo.
“This is our room,” said a man. “I think you should talk to reception.”
“Where are our bags?” she asked.
He shrugged, carelessly, Gallicly. “The room was empty,” was his simple reply.
We struggled with the baby back into the lift, and confronted reception.
“Yes. We have packed up your bags and checked you out. They are here,” he indicated our luggage with a negligent wave of the hand.
“Yes, I can see that,” I said, ‘but why?”
“Because, monsieur, you were booked in for only one night. We had another booking.”
“No,” Jo was firm. “We were booked in for two nights. Deux nuites,” she said, showing some skill.
“No. Pardon moi madame. One night.”
The baby started to squirm. He could sense that his mother was becoming aggravated.
“Right then,” she said. “We’re off.” And she picked up her luggage. I did the same and made for the door. There were plenty of other hotels in the area, and most of them better than this one.
At this point, the manager started to panic. “Excuse me, Sir, but you have to pay for last night.”
“Excuse me,” I said.
“Yes, last night. You stayed here. So you have to pay.”
I was of a different view. We had booked two nights, and were now homeless, wandering the streets of an unfamiliar city in the dark with an infant child. That fact alone negated the tariff for the previous night, in my opinion.
“No,” I said. “I’m not paying. It’s your mistake.”
The fellow looked back at me with a sad expression, as if I’d given him a bad diagnosis. We made a grand exit, like a walk out from work.
Having left the building, we really had no idea which direction to go, but the overriding aim was to escape the vicinity, maybe to a café where phone calls could be made.
We picked a random direction and set a hurried pace. Unfortunately, the manager was unencumbered by luggage and children, and he was easily able to match our velocity. He initially tried persuasion.
“But you have stayed in the hotel. You have to pay for that night. It’s the law. Why do you say that you won’t pay? Come back to the hotel.”
I thought it best not to engage in a philosophical argument about quality and value.
“Go away,” I said, persuasively.
We kept walking and didn’t engage. Ultimately he decided that dialogue wasn’t effective and went for a more direct approach. He grabbed my suitcase, and a cartoon-style tug-of-war ensued. Jo had been getting worked up, and by now she was in mid-stride.
“If you don’t let go of the bag,” she said with a calm, burning anger, “I will scream for help.” There was a flicker of indecision in his eyes, but he held on, and Jo made good on her promise.
“Help, help!” she yelled, moving onto the roadway for increased visibility. “This man is taking my bag!”
A passing car actually sped up to avoid the possibility of witnessing an event. In his haste the driver swerved and nearly hit her.
“I will have to call the police,” said the manager, perhaps as a last resort.
“Go ahead,” says Jo. “But I’m not going back to the hotel, and I’m not paying for the room.”
He took out a phone and called the police, all the while maintaining a grip on my bag. I’m trying to jiggle the baby in such a way as to keep him happy, but I suspect that he has a full nappy by now. And so we wait.
And wait and wait. Of course, the gendarmes have placed our little dispute low on the priority list, and rightly so. In the meantime, small talk proves difficult. His hotel is effectively unmanned now, and people have likely stolen far more than the value of our crappy room. A posse of prostitutes has probably moved in. He paces nervously, all the while his glance flicking between our luggage and his establishment.
He starts to apologise.
“I’m sorry, very sorry,” he says, “If it was just me, I wouldn’t care. But it’s not my place, I’m just the manager. The boss, he will take the money from my salary, you know. I don’t like him. He’s an Arab. I wouldn’t care, but him, he’s like an animal.” He articulated the final word with gusto. “Even I don’t like him,” he added, completing the picture.
This made me nervous. Were we going to be hunted down during the night for a ritual breaking of the kneecaps?
We lapsed into an uncomfortable silence, each of us ruminating on the likely harvest of the night.
Not before time, the gendarmes arrive.
(Next week – the inside of a French prison)