Our first encounter with Richard Bridger was in the lobby of the Grand Hotel Palazzo the day before the first Coronavirus quarantine was announced.
The lilt of his booming voice reverberated around the reception area where a party of sixty guests were waiting to check into their rooms.
“Darlings, you can’t leave me here,” he says to the young couple. “Not on a Sunday morning, Amalea?”
“Please, Signor,” she says. “We’ll miss our connection…”
Mister Bridger turns to her partner. “You too, Bernardo?”
“We can’t wait any longer, Signor.”
The young couple avoid eye contact with the old man and continue to check out. The old man’s fleshy right hand locates his wallet and he rifles through it. He waves a wad of notes at them, and raises his voice. “Who’ll help me with all my medication?” His eyes widen. “Surely you’ll stay for another two thousand?”
The young man shakes his head and she raises her left palm to fend off his advances. “We’ve no time, Signor---”
“Can’t you pack my bags, at least?” His brow is covered in sweat and he struggles to catch his breath. “How about four thousand each?” His empty wallet drops onto the floor and both fists clench the banknotes. “What’s wrong with my money, Amalea?” He draws the cash to his nose and inhales with a flourish that betrays his profession. “Let’s all leave tomorrow, Bernardo?”
“We need to leave today, Signor,” The young woman’s eyes dart around at the growing crowd who are now observing the performance.
“Say that thou didst forsake me for some fault, and I will comment on that offence,”he says, projecting to the balcony. “Speak of my lameness, and I straight will halt,”he turns towards the desk, “against thy reasons making no defence.”
Bernardo catches Amalea’s eye and she shrugs.
“You would bite the hand that feeds you?” He turns down his mouth.
Amalea shakes her head. “Goodbye, Signor,” she whispers and lowers her face.
“I’m not afraid to eat alone!” He yells and casts his arms aloft, filling the air with fluttering banknotes. There’s a brief cheer and light applause from the onlookers before a suited bellhop scuttles over to tidy up the fiscal debris with a pan and stiff-bristled brush. Bernardo offers Mister Bridger his hand as Amalea secures their passports in her handbag.
Mister Bridger steps forward, raises his huge paws and flexes his fingers. The young couple stagger backwards as he towers over them. “Signor Bridger…?”
He bares his teeth and releases an ursine growl, “GRRRRR!”
They trip over their own feet in their hurry towards the exit. Mister Bridger has neither the energy nor the inclination to pursue them and in one sweeping motion bows to his audience and retrieves his wallet. He cuts a forlorn figure as he watches his former assistants head towards the jetty and board the vaporetto. “No loyalty with the staff nowadays,” he says to the receptionist as normal conversation levels resume in the lobby area. ‘Where’s your manager?” He scans the immediate vicinity. “Signor Fortuny!”
I booked our journey before Christmas when the Spring break offers were first announced. I pounced on the opportunity to return to our honeymoon location at a bargain rate. Jenny and I tied the knot three years ago, however we’d failed to return after our wedding. I went ahead and booked everything, however I didn’t tell Jenny about the plan until a week ago.
“You’ve done what?” Her eyes widened with shock.
I began, shuffling from foot to foot. “Are you--”
“Angry, Jim?” she shrugs and sighs. “No, how could I be?” She leans over and kisses me on the lips. “You great softie,” she smiles.
“We need to have a break to, you know and…”
We’d wanted to start a family and so far we’d had no luck and little time to do anything about it. I knew she’d come round to the holiday idea but I didn’t anticipate the new bureaucratic obstacles in our way at the start of the current health crisis. It wasn’t the most relaxing way to begin a long over due holiday.
As the news of the pandemic got worse, we almost cancelled our holiday twice in the few days before we departed. The news declared that Italy was suffering badly and travel advice recommended only taking essential journeys. We discussed our options and concluded it was necessary; it was vital for us anyway. I reckoned that little would change overnight in Italy and the general disorganisation surrounding the virus would guarantee we’d be fine.
Signor Fortuny, the manager of the hotel, was as gushing as ever. He greeted us at the entrance with a wonderful smile and held the door open as we entered.
“Ah, Signor Bentham and, please, if you don’t mind?” He smiles at Jenny and bows his head to kiss her hand. “Signora Bentham,” he sighs, “more beautiful than ever.”
“Signor Fortuny, you’re too kind.”
“Please, follow me I’ll have someone take your bags.” His eyes search the foyer, he clicks his fingers and a lad in a pillbox hat and double-breasted suit approaches us. Signor Fortuny gives him instructions and waves his hand towards the reception. “After you, Signor and Signora.”
The receptionist is searching through the guest book as we approach the desk. She stretches forward, puts a hand to her mouth and whispers to Signor Fortuny. He raises an eyebrow at her and tuts. We look at each other and I clear my throat.
“Signor Bentham,” he begins, “please allow me to offer you both a drink to welcome you and celebrate your visit and of course your anniversary.”
“Since we’re here,” I turn to Jenny and her eyes sparkle. ‘Prosecco, please.”
“Signor and Signora it’s my pleasure.” He gestures to the bellhop and he scampers off to prepare a bottle.
“Let me toast your very good health. Please,” We follow him up a short flight of eight steps to a raised seating area. “Here is the best view of the sea, yes?”
“That view’s even better than I remember.“
The glittering Adriatic Sea greets us as we sit down by the picture window, and he presents two menus.
“I would like to offer you an evening meal on the house to say---”
“That’s very good of you and---”
“”Your room is…” he inhales through gritted teeth. “The suite we have for you is one of our best and,” he scratches his ear lobe, “you will have more space and a beautiful balcony overlooking the sea, but---”
“Wow, you never mentioned a suite, Jim.” I look at her and shrug and turn to Signor Fortuny.
He bites his lip. “But we need more time to make it ready for your stay.”
“Are we too early, I thought check-in was at mid-day?”
“Thank you,” he says and takes the bottle from the bellboy. “It’s fine we just need more time, so please relax after your journey---”
“That’s a lovely, idea.” She smiles.
“To your very good health.” He pours the drinks and we all clink our glasses.
There is a kerfuffle beyond the bar at the reception desk. An overweight gentleman is remonstrating with two young guests about their imminent departure. We observe the exchange whilst we sip our drinks and are surprised to see him throw handfuls of banknotes in the air. The exhibition draws a cheer from the other guests present and the young couple departs leaving the old man to fend for himself. The old man searches the lobby and shouts, “Signor Fortuny!”
We follow Signor Fortuny’s advice and while away our first afternoon in a pleasant prosecco induced haze. The shoreline in front of the hotel beckons us to wander out and take in the fresh sea air and crunch our way down the sandy beach. Its width is a pleasant contrast to the narrow lanes and confined spaces of the nearby city. It’s a beautiful day and we can feel the sun’s rays warming our bones as we explore the delights of the Lido’s main thoroughfare with all its shops, bars and restaurants. We end our ramble around the island with a visit to an eleventh century church of San Nicolo di Lido with its views over the lagoon to Venice beyond. It’s a clear day and we’re lucky to get a glimpse of the snow-capped summits of the distant Dolomites.
The next time we see Mister Bridger he’s naked apart from his silk boxer shorts and he’s throwing our cases out of our suite. We collected our key from the reception after our exploration of the Lido and headed straight upstairs. The lift doors opened and we heard a familiar voice cursing and shouting down the corridor.
“Damn cheek,” he says, grunting and wheezing between obscenities. “Don’t they know who I am?”
We approach the old man and pause nearby.
“You wouldn’t believe the cheek of some people.” He pauses to catch his breath.
“I believe this is our suite, Sir.”
His jaw sags and for once he’s short of something to say. The lift doors open behind us. “Ah, Signor Bentham and Signor Bridger!” It’s the manager
“Fortuny!” Bridger’s face is glowing with perspiration and taking on the colour of a tomato. “What the devil’s going on?” he wheezes.
“Signora Bentham,” he smiles and proceeds to deflect the inclement weather front. “I hope you had a marvelous walk did you manage to see---”
“Fortuny!” He wipes his brow with the back of his wrist. “What’s happening---”
“Signor Bentham and Signora are booked into this suite tonight and Signor Bridger is leaving tomorrow.”
“Now listen here, Fortuny, this is my suite.” He lowers himself to sit down on a case.
“I’m sure Signor Bentham and Signora are happy and understand this is only one night?”
“Do we have an option, Signor?”
On a Sunday evening on the Lido there is little choice. Signor Fortuny is a master negotiator whose reputation goes before him. In his heyday, Richard Bridger would have insisted on us stepping outside to settle it like men. Nowadays, his mortality is ever present and he accepts the situation, although not without conditions.
“If we’re in accord, you must follow the rules of the suite,” he says. “No loud pop music and no early starts, I won’t be woken by banging doors.”
Signor Fortuny roles his eyes and grips my arm as I open my mouth, “I guarantee Signor and Signora won’t disturb you.” He smiles. “So are we all ready for a delicious meal?”
“There’s one more thing.” The old man inflates his chest. “I insist we all dine together this evening,” he says. “And Fortuny, you will reserve the best table for nine o’clock?”
We look at each other and nod at Signor Fortuny who shrugs his shoulders and in turn smiles at Mister Bridger. “Fine.”
“You’re both my guests this evening, agreed?” There is a twinkle in his eye, but it’s a win-win situation. “And call me Dicky. Mister Bridger’s so stuffy.”
Signor Fortuny gives us a guided tour of the Mister Bridger’s suite of eight rooms and reveals the balcony and its separate entrance to our accommodation. Our room is generously proportioned and although a little dated in its style it benefits from the fourth floor sea-view. The former assistants had more than enough room to live quite separate lives from Mister Bridger, although his comments about music suggest that the soundproofing isn’t up to much.
At ten minutes to nine we return to the same table where we enjoyed our welcome drink with Signor Fortuny. He greets us and offers us another.
“Ooh,” Jenny looks at me and I nod. “Same again, please, Signor.”
“Signor Bridger insists on his choice this evening,” he smiles and a waiter extracts a cork from a reserve bottle of the nine year old Louis Roederer.
“Allow me, Signora.” He angles Jenny’s glass to one side and decants a stream of the golden liquid. “He loves the honey and crisp peach aromas, Signora.”
Jenny raises her glass and lets the tiniest little bubbles explode on the tip of her nose. We raise our glasses and offer Signor Fortuny our thanks.
“No, no, no,” he says. ”I must thank you for your patience, here’s to a happy marriage and a pleasant evening.”
We clink our glasses and he offers us the menus once more.
We’ve almost drained our glasses by the time Mister Bridger joins us. He’s wearing a light linen suit, white shirt and dark polka dotted tie.
“I see you’re enjoying the Cristal?” he says and summons a waiter with the wiggle of an extended finger. “Do prefer a sweeter drink? I like the dryness and the citrus notes. It’s muscular I find it, no?” The waiter arrives and lifts Mister Bridger’s glass to pour his drink. “I’ll have my usual, chef knows how I like it and I recommend it for my guests. You’re fine with the lamb and roast vegetables?”
“So that’s three lambs, medium rare is best, pink in the middle and we’ll have another Cristal before we start. So hold off the main course, thank you.”
The waiter nods and scurries away towards the kitchen.
The hotel has seen a variety of guests in its time and Mister Bridger has known most of them personally, it transpires. During the course of the meal he talks about his career and life in the movie business. It’s not the same as it used to be of course, the personalities have all gone he tells us. When Liz and Rich stayed here in the sixties, they bought the entire crew drinks all night long and entertained everyone with tales of film business excess. He remembers Dirk sitting around here in white face paint for hours on end, poor chap. It ruined his face for months afterwards. The wretched stuff stripped all the natural oils out of his skin, now of course he’d have sued the company. Mister Bridger’s stories became increasingly amusing as he consumed more of the drink.
The food finally arrives after our second bottle is gone. We stopped trying to match his thirst three glasses ago. Mister Bridger sits in front of his food after wishing us, bon appétit. We start but after a couple of delicious mouthfuls realise he’s not joining us. He’s just staring at his plate.
“Is everything all right?” Jenny asks.
“Well,” he starts, “Not really, it’s my hands, it’s a bit awkward but….”
Jenny smiles, “would you like me to help?”
“Why, certainly, if it’s no trouble?”
Jenny lifts his cutlery and slices the meat into bite size pieces.
“My assistants were called away at short notice today…” We continue but again he returns his attention to the food on the plate. “It’s such is a bally nuisance.”
I frown at Jenny and she turns to Mister Bridger. “Do you need...?”
“Would you mind?” he says and he lets his jaw sag open. Jenny responds by lifting a morsel and presenting it in front of his mouth. He leans forward and snaps it up and chomps away. “Delicious as ever,” he says.
It was the only thing we saw him eat although he enjoyed the Tiramisu of course, no slicing a pudding course, and it leaves room for plenty more Cristal.
He continued to amuse us for another hour before the mood swing happened.
The topic of the virus surfaced and he told us that Signor Fortuny was very concerned. There was a strong possibility of quarantine and that would give him a whole world of extra responsibility as manager.
“I don’t intend staying,” he says. ”I’ll find a way to leave even if I exit in a coffin.”
He was fine one minute then morose and full of regret the next. At midnight he ran out of steam and got the waiter’s attention.
“Send another bottle up to my suite and look after these lovely people, whatever they want is fine,” The waiter nods. ”It’s on my account.”
After he departs, we can’t consume anymore of anything else. We go for a stroll on the shore to clear our heads before calling it a night.
The main door is ajar when we reach our suite. We imagine that he was too far-gone to notice. The strains of some opera music we don’t recognize and can’t identify are drifting throughout the suite. The volume isn’t objectionable and once we’ve closed our door it’s bearable.
We settle into our bed and cuddle up after our long day. We remember why we wanted to spend time together and start to relax. However, before natural urges take their course we hear a noise that sounds like a tractor. The snoring gets louder until the entire set of rooms appears to be hosting a young farmers’ convention. Jenny sighs and we look at each other for ideas. Our special moment’s dissipating like sand running through an hourglass. We are deflated and increasingly disturbed by the raggedy breathing and rasping sounds.
The conjunction of his wheezy inhalations and the metal bedstead creaks are as worrying as an elderly patient on a poorly maintained respirator. I get up to knock on his door, hoping it will have an effect but after a short respite, we are treated to an increase in volume of his music.
Our evening is turning into an exasperating mess of frustrations.
At around three o’clock all is quiet and we breathe a sigh of relief. We’ve lost the any sense of intimacy and whisper to each other in the dark. We’re not tired, just a bit hungover from the bubbly, however not excessively so, because it was a fine quality drink. There are footsteps in the corridor and we hear them stop outside our door. The door handle grinds to and fro, and we see a narrow shaft of tungsten light appear. Mister Bridger’s naked rotund physique is silhouetted against the emerging light from the corridor. His arms are outstretched and he wanders into our room. He turns his whole frame ninety degrees and walks three paces to the wardrobe. He halts in front of it. He turns the handle and enters. We hear the sound of running water. Jenny over-bites her bottom lip and stifles a giggle. He’s inside our wardrobe for enough time to release about a gallon’s worth of urine. There is a couple of dribbling noises to complete his operation and he returns to his room.
We look at each other and try to restrain our laughter but the return of the opera music at high volume is the last straw. We both get out of bed and perform some furniture removals to block up our door and barricade ourselves inside.
When we wake up later in the morning we discover an apology note pushed under our door. He’s tried to wake us to help him take his blood pressure tablets but he’s been unsuccessful and guessed the number. He has written a melodramatic post-script to say if we find him unconscious, he doesn’t blame us for not helping him with his medication.
We’ve had enough now and go down to find Signor Fortuny downstairs. The manager is nowhere to be seen and we wait at the edge of the restaurant nibbling croissants until we spy him approaching. He arrives at the reception desk and looks tired and nervous. He’s distracted by the latest news.
“Good morning, Signor and Signora and how are you?”
“We didn’t get much sleep and---”
“I’m sorry to hear that but we have a bigger problem this morning. We are all now under quarantine restrictions.”
“We can’t leave?”
“That’s correct, unless you’ve got a private helicopter?”
The receptionist interrupts our conversation, “Signor Mister Bridger has been asking for you,” she says, “he thinks that he’s taken too many blood pressure tablets. He’s never had to administer his own meds and look after them himself.”
“That’s great timing.”
“However,” she continues, “we’re not to worry, he has very expensive medical insurance. We are to call him an ambulance at once. They will arrange his transfer back to a hospital in England.”
Signor Fortuny suggests we have breakfast and as we’re talking the medics bring Bridger through the lobby on a stretcher. Jenny rushes over and he gives her a little wink. With an imperious wave of his right hand he signals to the emergency duty team. They interpret the gesture correctly and continue through the lobby. They carry him out of the hotel and disappear onto the waiting vaporetto
The manager apologises again and hopes we can enjoy a pleasant stay. He says Mister Bridger is embarrassed and hands us a note from him. It says he’s sorry for his behaviour and offers to pay for our holiday. We are to enjoy our stay for however long we have to remain at the Grand Hotel Palazzo.