A room with no view
In 1968 I was 19 when I arrived in Madrid to spend two months at the Universidad Complutense. I had limited funds so travelled from Toulouse by the cheapest route possible, which meant 24 hours of travel, two train changes in France and two more in Spain, struggling with my suitcase and backpack from one station platform to another. I arrived at Atocha light-headed from lack of food, exhausted after spending the night in a compartment with two children who cried the whole way, and stumbled out into the blinding sunshine of a June morning, not sure where to go. I had my enrolment confirmation for my course at the university but I had nowhere to sleep.
I must have looked completely lost and overwhelmed by the white light of the morning, because a group of Spanish students, about my own age, took pity on me “¿Estás bien?” Well no, I was not “bien” and was grateful for a friendly greeting. When they discovered that I had nowhere to stay they had a rapid discussion in Spanish and I could hear mutterings of “¿Pensión la Favorita?” “Ni hablar – tienen chinches” (no way – they’ve got bedbugs) “¿Hostal Roma?” “Te timan” (they cheat you) ·”¿Residencia la Magdalena?” “¿Hablas en serio?” (are you kidding?) “¿Doña Natividad…?” At this suggestion all their faces lit up – yes! They turned to me eagerly and explained that Doña Natividad let out rooms in her apartment and she would be just the person to look after me.
Two of them took me on the metro to Diego de Leon and round the corner to her building. The big street door was open so we climbed the stairs to the third floor and the door was opened by a tired-looking woman in her 60s. The boys explained that I was looking for a room and Doña Natividad looked at me with an uncompromising stare. She did have a spare room and she must have decided that, even though I was foreign, I looked harmless, because she agreed to show it to me. It was a large room with a very high ceiling and was furnished with an ornately carved four-poster bed with brocade curtains around it, a huge wardrobe, a carved wooden chair and table, and had a window onto a shadowy inner courtyard. The floor was tiled with small red and white tiles and it must have been freezing in the winter as there was no heating, but in the summer the heat was oppressive. The bathroom was down the hall but I could not use the kitchen. The price was 50 pesetas per night and 8 pesetas to use the shower, which was quite expensive at a time when the minimum wage was 104 pesetas a day. However we agreed terms and I moved in. I could not cook but was allowed to bring in food that did not require refrigeration, and keep it in my room.
A few days later I discovered the reason why I could not use the kitchen when I woke early and went along the corridor to the bathroom. I passed the kitchen door which was slightly open and glimpsed a narrow bed squeezed between the oven and the refrigerator. I realized that Doña Natividad had given me her own bedroom and she herself slept on a fold-up bed in the kitchen. As I came back she was standing in the kitchen doorway, looking both defiant and embarrassed that I had seen her sleeping in the kitchen. “Es por mi hijo.” (I do it for my son) She needed the money to buy medicines for her son whom she visited every day in hospital. He was dying of cancer and the doctors told her he would not last more than another six months. Doña Natividad was a sad lady who originally must have been quite affluent because the apartment was large and the few pieces of furniture were of good quality. She told me that her husband had died in an accident leaving her some money, but when her only son was diagnosed with cancer she had limited medical aid and she had sold all she owned of value to pay for his treatment.
She already rented out the other two rooms in the apartment to two men. I never did discover exactly what either of them did, but I believe one worked in a Ministry somewhere. He was a rather self-important middle-aged man, aloof and somewhat disdainful towards this young foreign female whom he passed occasionally in the corridor with a muttered “Buenos días”. The other was a travelling salesman, but I rarely saw him.
Doña Natividad gave me a key for the apartment but I did not have a key for the street door. If I arrived home late at night and the door was closed I had to clap my hands and shout for the Sereno. He was the night watchman who patrolled the streets of the neighbourhood with a truncheon and a whistle, and held the keys for the street doors of the buildings. You could hear him jangling as he walked with his keys, for they were the original great iron keys that fitted in the huge old locks on the big street doors, and for a tip of 3 pesetas he would find the right key and open the door for me.
Doña Natividad was very kind to me and when she discovered that I lived mostly on bocadillos de calamares because they cost only 5 pesetas, she would occasionally give me a boiled egg or some sliced tomatoes with olive oil and would talk to me about how life had been for her before her husband died.
I stayed with this brave lady for the two months I was in Madrid and was very sad to leave her when I returned home. I wrote to her to see how she was, but I never received a reply. I always wondered what happened to her and to whom she rented out her room after I left.