We didn’t fall off the rails.
I wake to a glimpse of landscape, under the big window blind, that is unmistakably French. There are some hills, but they don’t have snow on the top, so we must have got through the Alps. I sit on the floor and watch the dappled countryside with its distinctive church spires and high roofed farmhouses. I know almost nothing about French geography, but am starting to feel more confident.
When, half an hour before we are due into Paris, I see tower blocks in the distance and motorways alongside us, I am positively Pollyannaish. Then the train slows and stops beside a station sign. Dijon. Even I know this is not a suburb of Paris.
The attendant can be heard telling another passenger, with a note of pride, that we are now two and a half hours late. On the hung-for-a-sheep principle, or perhaps just sheer bloody-mindedness, we then spend forty minutes in Dijon station and thereafter inch along the rails at walking speed. No one can bear to ask whether this forty minutes is included in, or in addition to the two and a half hours.
And this is where we are as I write in my little Moleskine notebook; six people: three Italian and three English, making the best of things in a hot little compartment trundling through the French countryside. G and I will certainly miss our Eurolines coach and the other Englishman his connection on to Cologne. It was bound to go wrong somewhere, of course, and things could be a lot worse (after all, we haven’t been rained on for a week) but the uncertainty, coupled with the insouciance of the staff, is a bit niggling.
But the time passes relatively easily. The sun is shining, we are passing through beautiful countryside and everyone in the compartment is friendly. If the worst happens, we have several litres of wine and over a kilo of Gran Padano in our bags. Once, when G. is out in the corridor, a man comes round carrying a large tray.
“Vuoi un cornetto?”
Without looking I give a curt “No.” What would I be wanting an ice-cream for at this time in the morning? Later G. says, “I was offered a free croissant in the corridor.” and I remember the Italian word.
We get into Paris Bercy three hours late and SNCF staff are waiting at the exit handing out slips of paper which tell us where to write with “mail, suggestion or complaint”. I hope they don’t get too many suggestions.
I’m not convinced by this, so join a queue at the information desk. When it is my turn I try to ask, in what remains of my schoolgirl French, for official confirmation of the lateness of the train. The young woman behind the desk has got as far as understanding that I caught a train from a place called Enretard before suggesting that we switch to English. Finally she gives me a little square of paper headed Bulletin de Retard and specifying the train number and extent of the delay, with an official stamp. This mollifies me and we lug our bags through three more Metro stations to the international bus station.
The coach on which we were booked has left an hour and a half before, so I join the queue for ticket sales with more hope than anticipation. There is, as I had thought, another bus at 2.30 but I expect at best to have to buy fresh tickets with a hefty surcharge, at worst to be told that there are no seats available. I begin in French at the first window then, suddenly suspecting that I am about to buy a ticket back to Italy, break off to ask whether he speaks English. He doesn’t, but the man at the next desk does, and gravely examines my tickets and Bulletin de Retard.
“You want to go on the 2.30.”
I’m not sure whether it’s a question or a statement. He types interminably on his computer and I try to remember how many euro I have left. I don’t dare to speak. Finally he hands back our tickets, liberally annoted in blue ink. The 11.30 has been crossed out and replaced with what, allowing for the vagaries of French numerals, could possibly be a 14.30. On one ticket is written “retard train” while the other, by way of variety, says “train retard”.
“You check in here,” indicating an adjacent booth, “in ten minutes. You will see me there.”
Indeed we do, as he slides from ticket vendor to passport checker, so I don’t even have to interpret his hieroglyphics to another official. And there’s nothing more to pay. Suddenly this bit of the journey doesn’t look so bad after all. The coach, unlike the sardine can of Monday night, is a civilised quarter empty, and we pass quickly over the Seine and between the cornfields of northern France. A hazy question-mark still hovers over tonight’s 22.05 train from London to Stafford, but the nice ticket man told me that we will arrive at Victoria by half-past eight, so all appears pretty much bien.
The journey through France is smooth and sunny, our spirits lifted by the ubiquitous wind turbines and unimpeded speed of the coach. At Calais we go through the passport check without anyone being interrogated and join a short queue of coaches driving on board a ferry. I’m almost inclined to believe the 20.30 ETA. But the coach line is halted as we reach the front, a stream of cars allowed on and then the lights turn to red and the gates are closed, leaving our bus sad and solitary on the quayside.
After that it goes a bit pear-shaped, as they say, in gross disrespect to the noble and proportioned figure of a pear. We get on another ferry a couple of hours later, are mid-channel at the fabled hour of half-past eight and being driven rather jerkily through Kent as my train to Stafford (the last of the night) pulls out of Euston.
So it’s back to Lower Earley, G’s sofa (and chivalrously loaned duvet) and an emotional reunion with the big green suitcase. One more piece of contemporary life to round off the day; as we try to walk into Victoria tube station sirens start wailing, coach-loads of police appear on all sides and the whole place is evacuated and packaged up with yellow crime-scene tape. We don’t think it’s anything to do with us, but on a day like this we can’t be completely sure.