It was holiday time at the private language school in Mexico City where I was teaching. I’d marked the end-of-year exams. Half the students had failed. Rich kids from the nearby university, they were an idle bunch with a highly developed sense of entitlement. Failure would be a useful corrective, I argued. The Mercedes-driving 20-year-olds had rarely encountered obstacles. Though of the same age, I owed them a life lesson. It was the least I could do.
And then, with a couple of weeks free, I forgot about them and took off for the state of Veracruz, where my maternal grandfather had built up a textile business decades before. I had a bit of money – all cash, no cards back then – and a return long-distance bus ticket. I split the money between various pockets and a secret bit of my back-pack, though left quite a wad in my right-hand trouser pocket.
First mistake. As I got off the bus at Orizaba, I noted that the trouser-pocket wad had gone. The jaunty fellow with limited teeth and worker’s togs who had been wedged in next to me and with whom I’d had what I thought a jolly conversation – I’d mastered Spanish by then – had left the bus a couple of towns earlier, taking with him quite a lot of my money. I’d neither noticed nor felt anything.
Here was a life lesson for me: on all occasions and in all places, beware the jaunty fellow. It was too late for murder, so I determined to make to best of things. I still had some money left. It would be street food rather than restaurants, but there was worse suffering than that. Or so I thought.
I bussed on to the small town south of Orizaba where, through to the 1940s, my Lancastrian granddad had had his textile factory. The town had the feel of a mini-Mexican Oldham, because that’s what it was. I was hoping to find traces of a family business long-since abandoned but first, I thought, I’d have a chicken tamale. I was hungry. I bought one from what we’d now call a food truck on the main square.
Second mistake. The tamale certainly hit the spot. Very more-ish. But then, as I wandered the place an hour or so later, the foodstuff turned traitor. It attacked. My guts were consumed in an independence struggle, desperate to secede from my body by any means available. My legs were ceasing to exist. I hadn’t booked a hotel so had no base to return to. As infernal forces fought over my internal organs, so I just made it to the town park. And there… well, thank heavens for tall tropical vegetation. In less time than it takes to tell, there was more of me outside than in.
I struggled to a park bench and collapsed, a drained two-dimensional version of myself. A young man – younger than me – approached. He carried with him a shoe-shine box. “That should do the trick,” I thought. “Polished footwear.” He knelt before me. Could he shine my shoes? No, I said, but if he didn’t move smartish, he’d have more than shoes to clean. Thus back to the bushes. Again and again. The young bloke – Raul, it transpired – hung around. Was I perhaps unwell? “Is the Pope Catholic?” I wanted to say, but lacked the strength.
“Follow me,” he said. There being no-one else to follow, I staggered up and followed him. It took a while, with several stops in dark corners, and me holding Raul’s shoulder. I was on automatic pilot. Some time later, probably minutes, we arrived before a white-washed one storey house on an unmade street. Raul propped me against the wall, went in and came out again with a handsome middle-aged woman. His mother, Maria.
She ushered me inside, straight to the back of the house and into a tiny bedroom. She pointed to the bed. I was in no state to object, resist or, indeed, live much longer. My entire being craved a lie down. I lay down. And there I stayed for (what I was later told was) three days and nights. Being essentially empty, I didn’t bother the family’s outdoor plumbing as much as I might have done. I slept in as close to a coma as not being in a coma can be. There may have been a doctor (I couldn’t get a clear answer on that). There was certainly Maria’s persistent presence with bottled water and towels. There seemed to be no husband, or anyone else bar Raul.
As I began to emerge on day three, I took in the room – windowless, with a crucifix on the wall and drifts of family paraphernalia covering the tight space. This was Raul’s room. He’d been sleeping for the duration on the floor in the only non-bedroom next door. I wondered: if some random Mexican with exploding bowels had turned up in Oldham – or, indeed, at my house – would he have been taken in, no questions asked? I’m still wondering.
Long story slightly shorter: as soon as I could move, I left. The hospitality had been so far beyond anything which could realistically be repaid that I could prey on it no longer. Maria, naturally, would take no money. She gave me to understand that looking after people was what women like her did. So I asked Raul where I might buy a can of cola for my bus trip back. He indicated the neighbourhood’s open-fronted store. I bought the can, then left most of the rest of my cash with the shop-owner explaining that when Maria came to buy groceries, she was to have them free for as long as the money lasted. Which wasn’t going to be above a few fruit and veg anyway.
I’ve no idea whether the owner honoured the arrangement, for I never heard from Raul or Maria again. I wrote a couple of times – I had the address – but received no reply. Thirty-five years later, I returned to the town, ate at the Holiday Inn, finally found traces of my grandfather’s presence – but none of Raul or Maria. I couldn’t get my bearings at all. Things change in 35 years.
That said, when I returned to Mexico City that first time – after the food poisoning horror – there was a note waiting for me from the director of the language school. I was, he said, to re-mark the exam papers, and to ensure that at least 95% of the students passed. Failures were not entitled to move onto the higher level for the next academic year. A 50% pass rate entailed a shortfall of significant ££££s. Also the loss of jobs. Specifically, mine. “This is what I was spared to do,” I told my housemate, and began re-marking.