Monday, April 12, 2010

Five years ago my father went missing in Spain.

I was on holiday with my parents. We were staying in a cheap hotel in Benalmadena and taking trips off to see various parts of Andalucia: Rhonda, Seville, Malaga.

It was in Malaga that he mysteriously disappeared. We had climbed up to the Alacazeba, one of the Moorish forts that can be found in most of the major cities in southern Spain. The ascent took half an hour or so, a series of moderately steep slopes snaking up to the summit. It was hot, very hot by our standards, mid-May and we paused half way up to get our breath back.

From the fort you could look down on all quarters of the city, the port, the Bullring, the coast line, the mountains. We strolled along the walls, climbed up narrow cool staircases to the highest point, climbed down again, drank something in the café. My mum and I decided to walk around the walls again, it was late afternoon by now and the quality of the light was shifting, a purplish dusk sifting through the sky, the shadows thickening, the air cooler. My dad had to “nip to the Gents”.

Wait for us here, we told him, then we set off, took a pleasant stroll around the walls and returned to the same spot . He wasn’t there. We waited for a few minutes then I went to check if he was in the toilet or the cafe. He wasn’t.

The security guard came around and told us that the fort was closing in half an hour. I asked her if shed passed anyone fitting my dad’s description on her rounds. She hadn’t. At this stage we were more irritated than anxious. Why can’t he just stay in one place? He must be waiting at the entrance.

He wasn’t there either.

I went back inside, looked around, came back out. The only conclusion we could come to was that he had gone back down the hill. We went down together, exasperated, only to discover that he wasn’t there either. There was a pleasant enough stretch of park at the foot of the alcazaba and we decided to wait there. He had obviously got distracted up in the fort, wandered off to some obscure nook and would soon be flushed out with the rest of the tourists when it closed. We sat dutifully waiting, heard and then saw small groups of people descending, hung on another five minutes or so expecting that doubtless he was straggling along behind even the slowest of them.
Still no sign of him.

It was growing dark now. Where is he? Where can he have gone, given that he speaks no Spanish and has no money on him? Given that he’s seventy -two years old and an inexperienced traveller? The only conclusion we can come to is that he has been kicked out of the fort but hasn’t come down and is, for some reason, waiting at the top for us.

I decide to go back up there. My mother, herself almost seventy, decides to stay in the park in case he turns up. Certain unvoiced fears are afflicting both us, he’s had a heart attack and is crumpled up somewhere, he’s stumbled, banged his head, and is jammed in some alcove. Otherwise, where can he be?

I can sense she’s anxious both about my dad and being left alone in the park which seems to be filling up with slightly disreputable characters. I imagine her handbag getting snatched while I’m halfway up. I ask some Spanish teenagers if they’ll be here for another ten minutes, can they make sure my Mum’s ok while I go and look for my dad. They look at me blankly, tell me that in two minutes they’re going somewhere else.

I reassure my mum I’ll be as quick as I can and jog all the way back up, arriving breathless and obviously worried just as the security guard is locking up. Can I go in to double check that my dad’s not inside, maybe he’s tripped and fallen, maybe he’s slipped off the castle walls. The security guard, Carmen, comes with me. We comb the fort, I look over the walls as I go, bracing myself for the possibility of seeing him face down on some buttress or snagged in some trees.

I jog back down again, hoping he’ll be standing there with my mum. Certain he will be. I rehearse what I’m going to say to him as I descend. She’s alone and looking pale. Perhaps he went back to the café we stopped off at earlier. He’s not there. We have a cup of tea, wracking our brains, trying not to panic. Perhaps he went back to the bus stop. But why would he when he’s got no money? And when he discovered we weren’t there? What then?

It has now been four or so hours since we last saw him. We decide to go to the police station to report him missing, ask the local police to keep an eye out for him wandering around Malaga town centre. It takes us another hour or so to find the station and by now it’s night. We stop at an internet café just before going into the station and I ring the Hotel back in Benalmadena to find out if they know anything.

He arrived back at the hotel about an hour ago by taxi they inform me.

We return by bus. He demands to know what we think we’re playing at: we have an almighty row.

This is what happened.

We’re going for a walk round the walls I tell him and set off. My dad looks at the route were taking and sees a short path that ends at the wall, but doesn’t see the steps that take us down on the left hand side and allow us to walk all the way around the perimeter of the fort, even though he himself has followed exactly this route an hour or so earlier. When he returns to this spot from the toilet we will either be back already or clearly visible, as we will be at the end of what he perceives to be a dead end. We are not there. He waits a few minutes, we don’t come back. He starts to get anxious. Where can we be? Though he would never admit to it he is easily made anxious, especially abroad.

We must be waiting for him at the entrance. We’re not there.

So we must be at the bottom of the hill.

He goes all the way down and discovers that we are not.
Therefore we must be at the bus stop.

He makes his way back there. We’re not there.

So we must be back at the hotel. We must have returned to Benalmedena without him.

He goes to a hotel across the road, asks the receptionist for a note in Spanish that says he will pay the taxi driver on arrival at his hotel, flags down a taxi and returns. He fumes on the way, utterly certain of the fact that we have abandoned him. There is no other explanation. He goes through it in his mind. We went down that little path while he went to the toilet, we reached the end, stood there for a minute admiring the view, having nowhere else to go returned to the meeting spot, saw he wasn’t there and then, for whatever mysterious reasons of our own, decided to go back to Benalmedena without him, leaving our septuagenarian, non-Spanish speaking father and husband penniless on top of a hill in a strange city.

It seems inconceivable, absurd that we would do so, but there is no other conclusion to be drawn. The path ends there.

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