The phone rang; it was a colleague in Las Palmas telling me that the police were in the middle of a response to a potential terrorist incident in the city. A suspect package had been placed in front of the door to the garage of the central offices of the National Police on the island. The building was sealed off, traffic was prevented from entering the road, and anti-terrorist officers arrived to assess the potential danger of the package. These officers quickly discovered that this was a false alarm, and since the suspicious package turned out to contain nothing more lethal than an antique typewriter, the panic was over.
Two days later I found myself browsing in a charity shop that I occasionally visit. I always find it fascinating to browse through old books, records and maybe find a technological treasure from the past, such as an old radio or ancient camera. This time, I spotted a typewriter, an old Olympia, sitting proudly on an antique desk. It looked in remarkably good condition, and one that I guessed was made in the mid 1960s. This machine brought back a flood of memories of my father bringing his portable typewriter home from work each day and patiently teaching me to type when I was still at primary school. In more recent times, I have been thankful for computers, tablets and all the other gadgetry that make life so much simpler. Did I really want to use a typewriter again?
Later that morning, I returned to the shop and asked for a sheet of paper to test the typewriter. Amazingly, all the keys worked, and the type was clear and aligned. It felt smooth and accurate to the touch, which was surprising for a 50-year-old machine; it had clearly been well looked after. It also came with a very smart protective case. As I handed over the ten euros asking price, I asked the man looking after the shop to tell more about where it had come from. He told me that it had come to the shop as part of a house clearance following the death of “an important man” several years ago. The typewriter had been forgotten and only recently put on display. He wouldn't tell me any more about the original owner of the typewriter, and seemed pleased when I stopped asking questions and left. I returned to my car, pleased with my purchase, although it was much heavier than I remembered. I was also intrigued by the response to my questions, and felt that there was much more to discover.
It was when cleaning the machine that I found an old sticker in the case with the name of the shop that had originally supplied it. The sticker included a phone number, which was in a different pattern of numbers currently used. It was not too hard to track down the modern version of the number and I decided to call it. Although it was doubtful that the shop would still be in business, I remembered that many businesses in the Canary Islands are passed through many generations, even though the original trade may have changed. To my surprise, the telephone number worked, and a man answered.
The man listened patiently to my story about the typewriter and told me that his father had owned the shop, but had died some years ago. As well as selling typewriters, his father had also serviced them. Although the current business no longer sold typewriters, the son had kept some records; did I know the serial number of the machine? Fortunately, I had already predicted that I would be asked this question and had written it down. The son took a note of the number and promised that he would call me back “manaña”. My heart sank when he said this, since “manaña’ is often a polite way of saying ‘never’.
Two days later, I received a telephone call. True to his word, the son had checked his father’s records, and found the serial number of my typewriter, the date of sale and the servicing that it had received. This time, the son was quite animated and told me that the machine had belonged to someone important, who had died. As I was British, he doubted that I would appreciate the significance, and asked if I would like to sell the typewriter back to him. He wouldn't tell me who it had belonged to, and I began to imagine that he would be quoting the words “data protection”, which is the current way of denying reasonable information requests. I thanked him for his trouble, but declined the offer, as I wanted to keep the typewriter.
Even more intriguing was when I tried to buy a new ribbon for the typewriter. When the ribbon arrived from the UK, it would not fit. I contacted the supplier, who assured me that it was the correct ribbon for an Olympia. He was puzzled as to why it would not fit and asked me to send him photos of the typewriter and the old ribbon spools. His reply was even more puzzling, since it seems that my Olympia typewriter is in fact an Olivetti. He is a typewriter expert and had not come across this issue before and suggested that the labels had been switched at some stage in its life, but could not explain the serial number that related to an Olympia. My imagination began to work overtime; was it all part of a complicated plot, with a switched identity of both its owner and the typewriter? It certainty left me wondering even more about its history and that of its previous owner.
I always appreciate a good mystery, and I also now have a rather splendid typewriter that I will use from time to time. I will always be fascinated by the story behind it, even though I have yet to discover who the “important person” was and why the identity of my typewriter was changed.
As far as the original news story that started my week is concerned, I am still wondering why an antique typewriter was left outside the central police office. After all, does anyone use a typewriter nowadays?
If you enjoyed this article, take a look at Barrie’s websites: http://barriemahoney.com and http://thecanaryislander.com or read his latest book, ‘Footprints in the Sand’ (ISBN: 9780995602717). Available in paperback, as well as Kindle editions.
© Barrie Mahoney