The Rogue Tram Conductor

A photo of Bilbao from Marriott's book.

A photo of Bilbao from Marriott’s book.

Snippets 65. Charles Marriott (1869-1957) was a writer of fiction with five novels to his name by the time he travelled to Spain and wrote about his experiences there in 1908. A Spanish Holiday is a travel journal detailing his time spent travelling with a friend around Spain. In Snippets 36 we looked at a quote from his journal concerning a hair-raising train journey. The following quotes are about a different form of transport, trams, or more specifically one particular tram conductor who kept cropping up during Marriott’s travels around Bilbao and seemed to have dishonest intentions…

We crossed a large open space, James alternatively picking up and losing the trail, and presently came to the beginning of an electric tramway under an avenue of trees. James was confident that it was the right tramway, but the conductor, a sinister-looking man with a heavy chin and a ginger moustache, said that it didn’t go to Portugalete, and he didn’t know where the Institute was. Our attempts to describe the place attracted attention, and the tram filled up with rough-looking fellows. I had taken a violent dislike to the conductor, which James, who said that wherever Portugalete might be this was the right tram to take us to the Institute, declared to be ridiculous. It may be that I received my first impressions of the man in an unfortunate mood, but our further experiences of him only served to deepen my suspicions; he was the only man in Spain who actually robbed us, and he was the occasion of the only drawn knife we saw during our visit, and before we left Bilbao James had come to share my opinion that he must be a “wrong ‘un.”…

Presently a bearded man in uniform, the lettering on whose cap suggested to me that he might be able to give me my friend’s address, got into the tram. I spoke to him, and after searching his memory he wrote the address of my friend’s office in my pocket-book. At that hour the office must have been closed, but the street and the number were at least something definite to steer by in our nightmare wandering. The bearded man soon got out and more roughs got in. As two of them passed the conductor he tapped his pocket significantly to indicate, I thought, that we were armed for the butt of James’s revolver was plainly visible. Such was the complete change of my mood since the afternoon that I only regretted mine was unloaded. I am a peaceful man, though I do not mind a row when a row is intended; but the prospect of a row being precipitated by some hasty and stupid misunderstanding of what was going on about us, through our ignorance of the language, was anything but pleasant. When the conductor came to take the fares of the two men sitting beside me he, I thought, reproached them for not trying to draw me into conversation. It is possible, it is even probable, that their intentions were nothing but friendly; that my acute discomfort was the result of an imagination, incited by sailors’ yarns and confused by unfamiliar surroundings working on a tired brain and an empty stomach, but I set down my impressions as I received them….

It was on our return to Bilbao that we saw the little incident which helped to confirm my bad impression of a certain tram-conductor. As our tram waited at a crossing we heard a shout, and an enraged young man, with a long knife in his hand, tore down the road. A heavy stone whizzed after him, and looking out we saw the conductor of the tram ahead, who was the object of my suspicion, in the act of hurling another. Of course we didn’t know which of the two men was the aggressor, but the incident was another mark against the only man we met in Spain whom we regarded as an enemy….

Attracted by what we had seen of the coast, we decided to spend our last evening in this neighbourhood at one of the fishing villages beyond Las Arenas. We had the pleasant company of a young countrywoman of our own. An English girl without relatives in Spain has few opportunities for free movement out of doors in the evening, and this gave our companion a high-spirited enjoyment of the excursion. To keep in the picture she went bare-headed and carried a red rose in her hand. We took tram to Algorta, and the conductor happened to be the man whom I had come to regard as my natural enemy. There followed an incident, too trivial to be set down but for its connection, which finally convinced James that my first impression of the conductor was not unjust. I asked him for three tickets to Algorta and gave him a two-peseta piece in payment. Avoiding my eyes and with a sullen, furtive manner as if he felt the dislike between us, the man gave me the tickets and a single copper coin of ten centimes. I knew that the ride was a long one and took the change without question. Some time later I happened to glance at the tickets and saw that they were for thirty centimes each, so that the man ought to have given me a peseta change as well as the ten centimes. It was as if one had received a penny instead of one and a penny. Of course it was too late to say anything now, and the trick had been so neatly done that we were more amused at my stupidity than angry with the thief. But it seemed more than a coincidence that we should have been cheated by that particular man. We were comparatively easy victims, but in no other case except for the toll taken of our ignorance by money-changers – were we robbed or given wrong change or bad coin during the whole of our visit to Spain. The little episode coming on top of the others went to deepen one of those curious fixed ideas of natural enmity which I believe are at the bottom of many unexplained and apparently motiveless crimes. I have the almost superstitious feeling that somewhere, some when, and somehow I shall meet again a certain Bilbao tram-conductor and we shall have out to a finish the smouldering hatred between us.

Marriott never did meet the same conductor again. He returned to Britain and penned several more novels, before turning to art criticism. He was the art critic for The Times from 1924 to 1940.


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