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Excerpt from Chapter One
We were right on time. Sunshine Tours informed its passengers on the printed itinerary that their coach was due at the Hotel Splendido, Rome, at approximately 1800 hours. Glancing at my watch, I saw that it wanted three minutes to the hour.
"You owe me five hundred lire," I said to Beppo.
The driver grinned. "We'll see about that in Naples," he said.
"In Naples I shall present you with a bill for more than two thousand lire."
Our bets were continuous throughout the tour. We each kept a book, checked the kilometres against the time, and then settled up when either of us felt like paying. The latter generally fell to me, no matter who had come out on top with the betting. As courier, I received the larger tips.
I turned round, smiling, to my load of merchandise.
"Welcome to Rome, ladies and gentlemen," I said, "the city of popes, emperors, and Christians thrown to the lions, not to mention movie stars."
A wave of laughter greeted me. Somebody in the back row cheered. They liked this sort of thing. Any facetious remark made by the courier helped to establish the relationship between passengers and pilot. Beppo, as driver, may have been responsible for the safety on the road, but I, as guide, manager, mediator, and shepherd of souls, held their lives in my hands.
A courier can make or break a tour. Like the conductor of a choir he must, by force of personality, induce his team to sing in harmony; subdue the raucous, encourage the timid, conspire with the young, flatter the old.
I climbed down from my seat, flinging wide the door, and saw the porters and pages hurrying from the swing-doors of the hotel to meet us. I watched my flock descend, sausages from a machine, fifty all told-no need to count the heads, for we had not stopped between Assisi and Rome-and led the way to the reception desk.
"Sunshine Tours, Anglo-American Friendship League," I said.
I shook hands with the reception clerk. We were old acquaintances. I had been on this particular route for two years now.
"Good trip?" he asked.
"Pretty fair," I replied, "apart from the weather. It was snowing in Florence yesterday."
"It's still March," he said. "What do you expect? You people start your season too soon."
"Tell them that at the head office in Genoa," I answered.
Everything was in order. We held block bookings, of course, and because it was early in the season the management had fixed my whole party on the second floor. This would please them.
Later in the year we should be lucky to get the fifth, and tucked away in the rear of the building at that.
The clerk watched my party file into the reception lounge.
"What have you brought us?" he asked. "The holy alliance?"
"Don't ask me," I shrugged. "They joined forces at Genoa on Tuesday. Some sort of club. Beef and barbarians. The usual treatment in the restaurant at seven-thirty?"
"It's all laid on," he said, "and the relief coach ordered for nine. I wish you joy."
We use certain code-words for our clients in the touring business. The English are beef to us, and the Americans barbarians. It may not be complimentary, but it's apt. These people were running wild on pasture land and prairie when we were ruling the world from Rome. No offence intended. I turned to greet the respective leaders of my Anglo-American group. "Everything's fine," I said. "Accommodation for all on the second floor. Telephones in every room. Any queries ring down to the desk and they'll put you through to me. Dinner at seven-thirty. I'll meet you here. The reception manager will now show you to your rooms. O.K.?"
Theoretically, this was where I laid off for an hour and twenty minutes, found my own small lair, had a shower, and collapsed, but it seldom worked that way. Nor did it today. My telephone buzzed as soon as I'd taken off my jacket.
"It's Mrs. Taylor here. Utter and complete disaster! I've left every package I bought in Florence in that hotel in Perugia."
I might have known. She had left a coat in Genoa and a pair of overshoes in Siena. She had insisted that these things, almost certainly unnecessary south of Rome, must be telephoned for and forwarded to Naples.
"Mrs. Taylor, I'm so sorry. What were in the packages?"
"Breakables, mostly. There were two pictures...a statuette of Michelangelo's David...some cigarette boxes..."
"Don't worry. I'll take care of it. I'll telephone Perugia right away and see that your packages get to our office in Genoa, and are waiting there for your return."
It depended on how busy they were at reception whether I left them to put through the call and make the enquiry, or dealt with it myself. Better do it myself. It would save time in the long run. I had sized up the Taylor woman as a package-leaver as soon as she joined us. She trailed belongings. Spectacles, head-scarves, picture postcards kept falling out of her oversized handbag. It is an English failing, a fault of the species. Apart from this, beef give very little trouble, though in their desire to seek the sun they blister more readily than other nationalities. Bare-armed, bare-legged, they're into cotton frocks and shorts the first day of the tour, turning brickred in the process. Then I have to conduct them to the nearest chemist's shop for salves and lotions.
The telephone buzzed once more. Not my call to Perugia, but one of the barbarians. A woman again, naturally. The husbands never bother me.
"Guess what. It's a boy!"