First move was to tell my hashihy housemaster that I’d be checking out slightly earlier than expected. Since I’d paid up in advance and wasn’t intending on asking for the balance back, I didn’t anticipate a big to-do. I hadn’t even fully unpacked yet, so I could feasibly have snuck out and Alex would have been none the wiser.
When I got back from that decisive meet with Mr Lucky, as luck would have it, Magic Alex was at his woozy station, just barely cogent. I mentally willed him to call me Scotty, just because I enjoyed the illusion of controlling events with my mind.
‘Scotty! How was your lunch today?’
‘Hi Alex! It was fine, but I got some bad news, a phone call from my mother.’ That I had no mother was something I hadn’t shared with my herby buddy.
‘Oh no! Is she alright?’
‘It’s not her, it’s…my step-father’. There was no step-father. I figured that a lie about a step-father would be more readily believed. Don’t ask me why. A few scenarios ran through my mind in a picosecond –
– He’s been bitten by a rabid haggis while roaming in the gloaming!
– The English have taken him out as belated revenge for the events at Bannockburn!
– He had a patriotic heart attack while watching Braveheart for the 138th time!
There’s this drink called Irn-Bru, you see Alex, and if you drink too much of it on an empty stomach…
If I was going to fabricate, why not make the cloth a colourful one? Nah, Alex was dopey but not stupid. ‘He was hit by a bus, and he’s in critical condition…I think I need to go home today and see him before…you know.’
‘Aw, that’s terrible Scotty! You know, here in Spain family is very important…you must be very upset. Maybe…’ Here it came. ‘…some smoke with a friend will make you feel better?’
Estimated time of drug pushing? 2 minutes. This guy.
‘Thanks Alex but I need to pack, arrange things, get to the airport…I need a clear head.’ The hostel belonged to Alex’s dad and he was effectively the caretaker. You could tell he was a smart guy in some ways. He always had a book on the go at his desk, and not a beach-blockbuster either. His eyes had a little twinkle that was never more evident than when he was proposing sparking up and nodding out. Did his dad slip him an easy occupation cos he was a hash-head? Or did he indulge because he had feck all to do all day? This was one chicken and egg I had no time to hatch.
I could see him cogitate. He had one of those cartoony faces where the play of thought was all too evident. Is it rude to insist that the Scottish guy who might soon lose his (fictive) relative smoke with you? His better nature tussled with the reggae part of his brain, the battle manifested by screwed up eyes and a corrugated forehead. I waited at the threshold of his indecision. Eventually:
‘Well…I guess you need to do what you need to do. In Spain we have an expression…how do you say it in English…’ But I was not to hear this nugget as I was halfway to my room by then.
Before I left the lunch, with squid-ink still sloshing in my gut, my new boss had passed me a slip of paper with an address on it and my first portion of payment, taxi money for a trip to a little hacienda on the outskirts of Madrid. It was here I wound up about an hour after my encounter with Alex.
From the outside it looked fancy in an anonymous way. Detached, with no immediate neighbours – of course! He didn’t want folk banging on adjoining walls to tell him he was playing his Vivaldi too loud; that could only have ended badly for all parties concerned – two stories, small garden in the front and a open-air parking space.
‘Ah, you found it I see!’ Lord Lucky Lucan, in the flesh, greeting me at his door as if we were old shooting companions. Surreal wasn’t the word. He tipped the driver with some crisp pesetas, then offered to help me with my rucksack. Not believing that he’d done a day’s heavy lifting since he went on the lam, I told him I could manage. ‘Well, come in and make yourself at home. Let me show you around the place.’
In the white-walled hallway was a coat stand next to a long and winding staircase, ornately varnished. My memory flashed back to an advert I once saw up the back of Sunday supplements for chair-lifts, the kind old people use. You know, with a photo where a codger looks as if their life is complete now they get to sit down while ascending or descending, like why wasn’t I doing this all along or something. Lucky Lucan had no such appendage, even though to my way of thinking he was old enough to qualify. Probably best to keep this to myself though, first day on the job and all that.
In the large living room the first thing that caught my eye was a huge hanging on one wall by Miro – only recognised as such because he did the posters for the 1982 World Cup in Spain, the first one I remember. Bright primary colours, solid strokes and dashes, the child’s perfect first surrealist.
‘Nice painting – I didn’t know they made reproductions that large though.’
‘Oh, you’re quite right dear boy, they don’t’.
I gaped. This guy clearly wasn’t short of a bob or two. Other things of note were a large drinks cabinet stocked with spirits of varying hues, from clear to green by way of various browns, even a blue. Old Miro would have loved it; but never having been much of a drinker myself, I wasn’t terrifically impressed. The decanter was nice though.
And an old dialler phone, you know the kind, with the receiver that’s as big as your head. Must have taken an age to call internationally on that. Imagine if you missed out a number near the end of the operation and had to go through the whole rigamarole again, nightmare! Give me a handheld Nokia anytime. Still, the old-timey décor did prompt a thought: the past doesn’t really disappear, it just moves.
After I had nodded approvingly at all this, we did the kitchen (massive but largely what you would expect, sink, taps, cooker, et cetera), dining room and then the upstairs. Three bedrooms, one of which had been converted into a study. As it was too short notice for it to be specifically for me, I can only assume Mr Lucky must have been doing his own conveyancing till then. Or maybe his last amanuensis had gone off unexpectedly…or maybe…Note to self: at no point ask the jocular question, ‘And what did your last slave die of?’ Know Thy Audience.
My first day at work was unconventional. There was no office as such, no headed notepaper, not even a typewriter. Just a rather bulky laptop. My duties weren’t too dissimilar to the job I’d left behind in Glasgow: basically I attended to the whims of a madman. If Mr Lucan needed anything that didn’t require his personal appearance, like food shopping, mail opening and actioning (he had many aliases, so it was a bit like opening mail for a household full of blokes, or one schizophrenic) or scanning the internet for credible sightings, I was the go-to guy. This last duty was an interesting one – he had things set up in such a way as to facilitate an easy escape, suitcase packed full of essentials under his bed, the whole thing. If it seemed like the heat was on, he simply picked up and vanished.
Imagine you live in a country that undergoes constant civil war, like Lebanon in the 80s or Bosnia in the early 90s. You live on the move, in your car if you lack money, in a series of short term rents if you’re flush. When your area gets too hot to handle, you need to find somewhere else, so you can’t get too attached to a particular place.
Mr Lucky’s situation was slightly different in that he seemed to be living though a one-man civil war; when he moved on he couldn’t afford to say goodbye to any contemporaries, to leave a forwarding address or any tokens of his stay. Essentially he had to vanish and re-materialise on a fairly regular basis, or at least be prepared to pick up and run at a moment’s notice. I wondered if this had an effect on him psychologically.
‘My dear boy, I don’t believe I pay you to be my therapist! And if you are looking for a wage rise in that regard I’m afraid I’ll need to see some certification.’ In other words, mind your own.
I was quite surprised by the slow internet speed in Spain. In the UK, it was pretty standard to boot up, type the name of the website into the address field, then go and brew up a cuppa while you waited for it to load the page. Here, you could drink the bugger too! I’d say it was about where Britain had been 4 years ago, back in ‘97. In any event, scouring the World Wide Web for mentions of Mr Lucky was entertaining. None of them were remotely on the ball, but some gems presented themselves from time to time.
I saw him drunk and trying to mount a bicycle in a field in Devon.
I saw him cheering on the bulls at the running in Pamplona.
I stood behind him at the deli counter in Waitrose on the Old Kent Road.
I saw him trying to fish a pound coin out of a gutter in downtown Gibraltar (finally, a plausible one!).
I passed him in a country lane in Paddock Wood, weaving his way home one Friday night.
I clocked him trying to chat up a dolly bird half his age at the Grand National back in ’86.
He was pasting up a billboard for the National Lottery launch when I spotted him. Sure it was him.
He tried to sell me a clock with a painting of Hosni Mubarak on in a street market in Cairo. I told him to get to fuck.
David McNally comes from Glasgow and lives in Tunis. He makes the most of the beaches and a pest of himself in the cafes.