Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Chapter 3 - The Café Cecil

She looked wonderful in her provocatively low-necklined black evening gown and light shawl when he collected her at Europa. She smelt pretty good too. Chanel he thought as the perfume drifted gloriously around them in the car on the drive back into Town. He had been a little unsure earlier, confused by the warm scent of the jasmine, appropriately named ‘Dama de Noche’ or ’Lady of the Night’ that abounded outside her quarters, as they walked through the small garden to the car.

The Hotel was at the northern end of Main Street, close to Casemates. Casemates was a large flat open area, surrounded by barracks on two sides and was used by the Garrison for musters and Parades. The Ceremony of the Guards, a nightly interpretation of the closing of the town’s Main Gates, was conducted here every evening by the duty battalion. In reality it was no longer absolutely necessary. Dating back to the old Siege days, the Town Gates were closed and locked, using a huge set of keys ceremoniously carried by the guards. This signalled the end of the Garrison day and secured the Town and Fortress of Gibraltar overnight, behind the massive defensive stone walled casemates that surrounded the town. As they drove past Casemates Parade, they heard the last sounds of the Guard’s commands calling out the “All Secure”. It always gave Tony a nice feeling of safety, that all was well, whenever he observed this old tradition. A bit of a futile exercise, he knew, in the light of modern weapons. It wouldn’t take much more than a well aimed blast from one of the new German Panzer tanks, for instance, like the ones that had completely overrun the gallant but tragic Polish and, more recently, the French armies, using this new type of warfare they were calling ‘Blitzkrieg‘. He comforted his unsettling thoughts with the knowledge that the Garrison’s own 9.2-inch Batteries were ideally placed on the northern escarpment of the Rock, in fact just above Casemates Parade. These had a commanding field of fire across the mile and a half or so of flat and lacking any cover with a lagoon on the easterly side, further narrowing the isthmus that lead north towards the Spanish/Gibraltar border and formed the mouth of our small peninsula. Not much occupied this area other than a small and well frequented racecourse that sometimes also doubled as an airstrip but was not really large enough to cater for any large aeroplanes. Any troops or armoured formation attempting to cross this area would soon find themselves wishing they hadn’t!

The view from the Gun Batteries on the North face of the Rock across the isthmus.  The border is beyond the wooded area and the Racecourse oval can be seen on the right middle of the picture.

A couple of hundred yards into the northern end of Main Street they parked just outside the balconied entrance to the Hotel Cecil, as it was named. The doorman, stepped out and opened the doors. The sound of band music drifted down from the Café Restaurant and Dancehall upstairs overlooking the busy street, gently wafting around the late evening walkers, on their way to their Friday evening’s chosen entertainment or home after their customary evening drink and stroll around the town centre.

“Good evening Don Anthony!“ greeted the night manager, using the customary term of respect reserved for well known customers or, as in Tony’s case, superiors, as they walked through the Reception area. “Que tal Frank?“ Tony replied with a light smile. Frank, the Night Manager, had been with the Hotel for years. Like many of the Hotel’s staff, he had known Tony since childhood. The Hotel Cecil was actually owned by Tony’s family, the Valoris. Tony’s father Alphonso was the youngest of six brothers and the Hotel was a significant part of a wider highly respected and influential business in Gibraltar. The Valoris Family business comprised of a large industrial laundry, a number of souvenir shops in Main Street and the main town bakery supplying the vast majority of Gibraltar, including large parts of the Garrison, with its bread and the most delicious cakes, pastries and patisserie. In fact, throughout Gibraltar, the Valorises were known as “The Town Bakers”! As a child and through his teens, Tony had had to put up with endless but by and large friendly ribbing from his peers, frequently being referred to as ‘Panadero’ or ‘baker boy’! He didn’t mind at all, especially as the compensation was regular visits to the main bakery in Irish Town where his Uncle Eugene looked after this important part of the family business and who also happened to be his godfather. A bachelor for most of his life and therefore childless, he took great pleasure in plying Tony, his favourite (and only) godson with all the cream and other assorted cakes that Tony and often his school chums too, could stuff into themselves! At times, arriving home feeling queasy from the banquet, young Tony would be scolded for his strange lack of appetite for the evening meal, which his Mother Anita Valoris had lovingly prepared. Needless to say, this never put him off his visits to Irish Town and he always looked forward to his next visit with a slurp of anticipation. He would spend hours there, watching the skilled Spanish Bakers, making the dough and working the bread loaves and patisseries around the huge baking ovens, whilst Uncle Eugene plied him with endless and delicious samples of all that was being produced! Wonderful, if at times somewhat nauseating days but never regretted!

On his return to Gibraltar, having concluded his short Naval career after University, Tony had been invited to join the family business, as was customary. After his apprenticeship, spending time in all the diverse areas of the business, Tony settled and worked his way up the ranks of the Hotel, working as a receptionist initially, then Night Manager but eventually, showing a good head for business, he persuaded his father and uncles to invest and develop an entertainment venture using the Hotel’s ample facilities and position in the centre of town. It had not been easy as the Uncles tended to be quite set in their ways and did not take to new ideas or radical changes comfortably. Uncle Armando had been especially challenging. He was the third oldest and by far the wisest of the six brothers. It was he who carried the main burden of managing the family business as the company’s Secretary. Having gained degrees in law and accountancy in his youth, he was the most qualified for the task. He also counselled and advised on all legal aspects for both business and family matters. Tortoise like and fixing him with studious eyes over his pince-nez glasses across the large board room table, Uncle Armando had questioned him at length over his plan and especially, the figures. By the time Tony had won him over, the rest of the brothers, always acting in committee, were easily persuaded and unanimously voted to support his venture. Tony was allowed to create what quickly became one of the most popular Nightspots in town, frequented by senior members and Officers in the Military Garrison Staff, visiting Royal Navy Officers and affluent and influential members of Gibraltar society. The new venture proved a great success and quickly became an important contributor to the Family business. Uncle Armando in particular, was well pleased, nevertheless still keeping a close eye on those figures. Quietly, his father was also once more made to feel very proud of his son, now proven to the rest of the brothers and family as his own man of business!

Because of the start of hostilities, on his return to semi-active service with the Royal Navy Reserve however, Tony’s duties meant more and more time away from the Cafe. In the end, he had carefully hand picked an Assistant Manager, approved by the committee of brothers, his Uncles, to look after the daily business of the Café Cecil, as it was now known. Tony still remained ‘The Boss’ however, his Assistant reporting and consulting him before making any major decisions. This arrangement worked well.

The Hotel Cecil and Main Street

Cindy tucked her hand under his arm and they started up the stairs to the first floor Café. Frank caught his eye and quietly told him Jorge, his Assistant Manager would like a word when convenient. Tony nodded. As they climbed the stairs, the band music raised its volume, a latin american number seemingly marking their step as they climbed. Jorge was standing at the door, already mysteriously alerted to their arrival. “Good evening Jorge” Tony smiled at his able assistant, handing his rather worn homburg to one of the waiters. Jorge returned his greeting and with a slight bow gallantly turned to Cindy, stretching his hand out to gently hold hers, “Good evening Miss Cindy! An especial pleasure to welcome you back again. You grace our café with your beauty!” he smiled broadly as he helped her off with her shawl, quickly handing it to the waiter, then indicating with his hand for them to follow, marched off, through the Café doors and led them to their favourite table always reserved for Tony, in one corner by the large window overlooking Main Street. The table, one single lounge seat, curved round the corner of the room in a large ‘C’. It provided a semblance of privacy, whilst at the same time affording a good view of the Band, the polished wooden parquet dance floor, main door and the room generally. Tony helped Cindy shuffle along into the corner and then sat himself, looking around the room discreetly appraising tonight‘s guests. He was pleased to see quite a few friends and acquaintances dotted about, pleasing noting that, even at this early hour, the tables were starting to fill up, with many groups well advanced enjoying their suppers, waiters busily buzzing around smartly dressed in their tails, armed with the regulatory white cloth napkins over one arm and carrying drink trays in the other hand.

Jorge waited till they were settled and ordered their drinks. He raised his eyebrows questioningly at Tony. Tony indicated for him to join them. “What’s up Jorge, problem?” Jorge Valadares spoke perfect English for a Spaniard. He had trained at one of the best hotels in Madrid and had also worked in London for a time before he had been found by one of Tony’s contacts, when looking to fill the position of his assistant at the Cecil. He had now been in his post for a couple of years, proving himself to be a discreet, loyal and very capable right hand. Tony had grown to value Jorge’s input in most matters. He noted Jorge’s slight frown. “No, I don’t think so” he said. “Paco Ramirez was in again earlier this afternoon. You know he comes in nearly every day? He comes in nearly every morning for coffee and reads his paper. Often, he comes in for tea in the afternoon too”. Tony nodded, listening attentively. Cindy excused herself and Tony and Jorge raised themselves off their seats as she breezily went off in the direction of the Ladies room, interrupted on her way by a loud shout of “Cindy!“ He saw a group of their friends waving and she stopped by their table which burst into a series of hugs, kisses on the cheeks and greetings.

Jorge continued, “He often stops me for a chat, you know, idle chit chat I suppose,” he paused and then continuing, “but many questions, always questions”. “Well, that’s the Spanish for you” Tony replied, “a curious race”, he smiled. “In any case, he’s got his column to write. He needs to keep his ear to the ground, gather his material”. Jorge looked at Tony. “Yes, I suppose you’re right. Anyhow, he also asked if you might be in this evening. I told him you would probably but that I wasn‘t sure. Was that okay Boss? He didn‘t say why he was asking. I can only assume he wants to see you though he did not say”. he looked quizzically at Tony. “Did he say if he was coming in tonight?” “No, he just said he would catch you around sometime.” Tony looked across the room in thought. “Hmmm, okay, well we’ll just have to wait and see. I’m sure it’s nothing.” Nevertheless, he was curious. “Is that it?, he asked taking a sip of his iced bourbon. Jorge nodded, “Yes Boss. That’s all.” he pursed his lips and continued, “That man. He asks many questions Boss. Too many questions!” Tony nodded once more and slightly tilted his head as he did so, a little gesture he had acquired when deep in thought.

Cindy returned from her 'working' the room and her boudoir stop just as the waiters started serving their supper. They were ready for it and Tony smiled and licked his lips at her as he poured her the chilled chardonnay from the bottle, dripping with condensation. The band had been joined by their female singer and she now sung a cheerful number recently made popular by the American film actress, Betty Grable. Tony enjoying his food, was not listening. Jorge’s voice was echoing in his mind, “That man, he asks too many questions Boss”!