Thirty years ago, I went from Turin to Rome for Easter, with two friends, Charlie and Sue, and Sue’s dog, a boxer called Lucifero. We looked for a room in the centre of Bologna, but nowhere would take Lucifero and Sue refused to leave him asleep in the car, convinced he’d be stolen and used for breeding purposes. Finally, when it was almost eleven and there seemed to be no more hotels to try, Sue decided we’d head for Florence across the hills. There was bound to be somewhere on the road, she said.
We’d been driving for half an hour along ever darker, steeper roads when we came to a village. There was a scattering of houses and then a church and what seemed to be shops. All the shutters were closed, except for those of a small bar in the central square. A tall man with a yellow pullover was turning off the lights behind the counter as I ran in. ‘Prego,’ he said. ‘Un albergo,’ I stammered. ‘Cerco un albergo.’ He shook his head. I watched him as he glanced behind me, towards the corner of the bar, then turned to see what he was looking at.
Four old men were playing cards around a table. I hadn’t noticed them as I came in. They had earth-coloured clothes and stubby workmen’s hands, the creased, soiled cards minute in their fingers. They were playing with cards like the minor arcana in a Tarot pack: clubs and coins, cups and swords. They turned to stare at me, then one of them pointed up the road and started to talk. I didn’t understand what he was saying at first. ‘Un albergo?’ I said again and he nodded. ‘Si!’ he said. ‘Ad un chilometro.’
We drove along the road he’d indicated until, three or four minutes later, a light appeared to the left. We took out our bags, while Lucifero bounded around the car, peeing against the back wheel, taking in the air with great meaty sniffs.
The hotel looked like a converted farmhouse. A single sign above the door said PENSIONE, its light flickering on and off as we opened the door. Immediately in front of us, standing behind the desk, there was a tall man in a yellow pullover. ‘Prego,’ he said. He smiled as I turned round, and saw the table, and the four men playing cards, and one of them turning a card up with his stubby workman’s hand.
Sue didn’t believe me when I told her; I don’t remember what Charlie thought. Lucifero growled under his breath, then edged towards the stairs, while I stared at the men and the one who had sent us there nodded slowly, gathering the cards into his hands and mixing them, then dealing them out.
I didn’t sleep that night. The next morning we drove back down to the village so that I could see who was in the bar. The building was there, exactly as it had been the night before, but there was no bar, only a door and a doorbell, with a column of names. I stood in the square, looking round wildly, until a woman walked across from one of the shops and asked me what I wanted. Was I lost? I asked her about the bar. She shook her head, and smiled. I climbed back into the car.
‘You must have been dreaming,’ said Sue.