Tuesday, 19 July 2016

TEN DAYS. Part One

There is a universe sized gulf between silence and sound, and the phone alarm exploding in the general vicinity of my ear is the precise if fleeting moment that the gulf is bridged. I am somebody who dislikes being roused from sleep. It usually takes some time before my senses are fully engaged. I can be the sort of person who can look awake, be fully dressed, and yet still put the tea bag into the kettle then put oats into a cup before I snap out of that particular mindfunk and start the process of breakfast again. Once the curtains are drawn, I can take a peek at what is beyond them. It is instantly apparent that a dreary looking day is dawning almost reluctantly over this Bristol city street. As I shuffle into the kitchen aiming manfully at the kettle, the stalwart kitchen clock ticks away time gently to itself, its hands showing that the time is just past 5.30 am. It really is not usual for me to be willingly awake this early and it is stretching the definition of willingly to say I am this morning. Today though is a day for an early start, just as yesterday evening was an occasion for reluctant alcoholic restraint in the pub with two old friends, reminiscing over just a couple of beers. Many years have escaped since we were all in the same room together, some may slip through the nets before it happens again.

One of those old friends is Ray, and he has been a guest overnight on the sofa bed in my terraced Bristol house. We’re off on an intrepid excursion today, but before embarking on a journey down the many, many long roads ahead, we require food, despite the fact that neither of our respective stomachs is really awake enough to require filling. The menu I can offer isn’t extensive, but whatever it is to be, for me it must contain uber-strength coffee to fire me up for a stint behind the wheel.

It’s been said many times, I suspect, that any journey, however long, starts with the first step. As we step towards the van, I get that exact feeling. It is one foot after the other, marking out a few yards at a time. It’s the first few yards of 1500 miles of road, the first few seconds of three days of travelling.
Since the arrangements were made to drive to Italy, I’ve been waiting to see what the van allotted to such an arduous pursuit will resemble. Behold! It’s a small white Vauxhall with two seats. The back is full of what looks like an assortment of charity shop tat, but is actually somebody’s possessions. Really? I remind myself that being instantly judgemental is both an understandable and reprehensible personality trait.

A driver’s seat is the throne upon which any self-respecting would-be Monarch of the Open Road must place his or herself in order to begin their reign. Upon opening the driver’s door, it is plain that this particular seat may be harbouring anti-Royalist sentiment, because at first glance I discover a slightly less than comfortable looking amalgam of old sofa cushions and rope. On second glance, the conclusions leapt to as a result of my first glance are irrefutably confirmed. This fiendish construction of lumbago-inducing menace stares casually back at me, alleging profound innocence with its quaintly wonky contours. It’s the look that an aging farm dog would give a lost rambler just seconds before it sinks its three remaining tallow-hued teeth almost intractably into an unsuspecting calf muscle. On an olfactory note, the seat is not genuinely unpleasant, but there is a general mingling of low level aromatic funks, the like of which only old vans and their dubious upholstery can emit with such aplomb. A reliable steed though, at least I hope so, because it’s going to be a hell of a journey if it proves otherwise.

I have volunteered to drive the first leg so that I can get used to any idiosyncratic behavioural issues regarding a Vauxhall. I’d rather be doing that in England before having to do so whilst simultaneously concentrating on remaining on the right hand side of the road. The journey starts in a fine drizzle, continues in a fine drizzle, and remains drizzly all the way to Dover. The only breaks in drizzle are the times when it is raining. England my England, this ‘green and pleasant land’, this ‘Sceptred Isle’, I cannot wait to see the back of you.

Dover is not all that Vera Lynn cracked it up to be on this truly miserable Sunday morning. In truth, its appearance is not enhanced by the near-horizontal precipitation, I grant you. However, the purely functional nature of the fencing and gateways, with the Channel beyond, give it the look of a vast sheep dip. But the queue is short enough to drive straight aboard the waiting ferry, and our spirits are as buoyant as the bubbling plumes left in the wake of the vessel as we pull away from the dock, positive because we know we are heading toward a comparative paradise. I have been aboard quite a few of these ships, and they all smell exactly the same. The whiff of diesel fuel and salt spray transports me back in time in that way that only smells can. It evokes memories of school trips, cricket tours, hitch hiking to and from Ireland, all in an instant.
The sea leg of our journey is uneventful and calm, surrounded, of course, by many travellers of mixed nationalities. Some are going home, some breaking away from the everyday grind of the norm, perhaps. I’m compulsively nibbling away at a bag of peanuts, staring at maps, discussing the odd plan with Ray and generally enjoying the concept and reality of not being where I have been.

As our liner glides into one of the many portals to mainland Europe, I am left with the assured knowledge that ferry terminals are indisputably ugly, universally it seems, because when we arrive at Calais, it wears a joyless, misty countenance which stares blankly back at the white cliff broken-toothed grimace we have just left behind.

With Ray now behind the wheel, we exit Calais. Barbed wire fencing along the roadsides reminds me that this is a last bastion against the alleged ravages of asylum seeking hoards. Their desperate plight in this continental cul-de-sac on this morning of gritty reality somewhat juxtaposes our utter freedom to travel to the hard but pleasant working holiday ahead. There are thousands of men, women and children in those makeshift camps hidden by mounds of bulldozed soil, driven there by a desperation I have never and will never feel or experience. How lucky I am.

And so on we travel, through the succession of gentle waves of low hills that is Northern France as viewed from a French motorway. My job is navigator. Whether I am or not, I feel that I’m quite good at this, giving frequent geographical updates which are interspersed with occasional bird spotting reports. I can’t help but allow my mind to wander across those foreign fields, corners of which Brooke would have us believe are forever England. It’s late May, the last day in fact, and from that ‘rich earth’, scarlet poppies adorn the verges as incongruous as cheap lipstick smudges on a vicar’s starched white collar. So many poppies, waving cheerfully like blood-red flags, reminders to us of a bygone era of open hostility, grief, pain and death as we fly past. Whatever occurs upon this venture, I must bear witness to my own good fortune, fortune which brings it to my life. This bolt-from-the-blue opportunity has landed in my lap for a reason, and each moment that it brings is to be breathed in as one would the scent of rose petals at dusk.

We have been on a toll road to enable a fast escape from the port and its immediate hinterlands. Once that road is behind us, the sight of harsh fencing has faded into memory like mists under a summer sun. We downscale one road category, and the scenery calms. France is a big country, and the spacious nature of the landscape is beginning to add flavour to the tasty brunch that is an open road. OK, it’s Sunday, I don’t expect a busy road anywhere, but I am suddenly very aware that there are just less people per square mile here, which translates quite directly to less cars. I mention this to Ray, assuming that it would suit him too. He has always, on the face of things at least, had a laid back style of life. This attitude has sewn seeds, sprouted, taken root successfully, and flourished to embellish the bare trellis of the Highway Code with a lavish and colourful vine of eclectic driving techniques. With the wrist of his outstretched right arm perched on the midnight position of the steering wheel, fingertips resting on the dashboard, he nods in agreement that the dead straight stretch of uninhabited tarmac ahead of us would be teeming with traffic in England. Not necessarily everywhere though, I’m used to inner city life. By comparison, Ray lives in the middle of nowhere, a place where he maintains he may not pass another road user on an early Sunday drive. That fact alone reminds me that I don’t see enough of my own country, let alone far pastures.

We are a microbial white Vauxhall shaped speck on the Petri dish map of France, and we are moving, moving inexorably closer to our first destination, which is a pre-booked B-n-B near Troyes. There are roadside signposts warning passers-by that locals don’t want fracking here. I have always felt that France is a country where civil disobedience bubbles near the surface as a societal reaction to any differences of opinion between the government and the rest of the population. I hope they succeed in this particular pursuit of opposition.
We arrive at that first night stop with a feeling akin to job satisfaction, and exchange mutual gratitude for a near perfectly executed plan. Ray the Eurodriver, myself as the map reader. And then of course, there’s Patrick. I haven’t mentioned Patrick until now, because I’m not so sure I like his company. I have been fermenting growing mistrust for his opinions regarding my map reading skills, and also developed disillusionment with his erstwhile assumed helpful sense of direction. He appears to be easily confused by what on the face of things, seems to be the most fundamental of requests. And there’s another thing. He has a bloody annoying habit of interrupting our conversations by suddenly blurting out where we should be going next. We already know, and he doesn’t take a hint when we say, “Yeah, Patrick, we know that, we’ve read the map.”  He has no compunction whatsoever regarding pointless repetition, and just keeps on stating the obvious until we’ve actually made the turn, despite telling him we heard him the first time. He’s has given me the distinct impression that he’s ‘on the spectrum’. Begrudgingly, I have to admit Patrick has been a help along the way, though. We bid him a bland ‘Adieu’ as he’s relegated to sleeping in the van. We head off into the tidy, clean world of Le Clos Poli.

We are greeted by our gracious hostess, who is quite frankly, a cliché personified. She is as informative as she is petite, and as far as I can make out, as she is speaking quite quickly in a potpourri of French and English, appears to be married to a large St. Bernard dog. That part may have lost a certain ‘Je ne sais quoi’ in translation, so it’s fortunate at this juncture that she notices our politely confused expressions. She continues our instructional introductory mini-tour employing only English and an increased level of multi-faceted gesticulations, thus rescuing myself and Ray from the profound discomfiture of displaying our combined grasp of the French language. That grasp could be likened to one which a morphine affected octogenarian may have upon an amphetamine crazed and well greased pig.

Bed and Breakfast means precisely that, and so after introducing ourselves and attempting to converse in, not just broken, but completely annihilated French, we are recommended a local eaterie which is a short drive away. First we need to rinse away the day’s grunge, and after a quick scrub up, we clamber back into the van trying not to wake Patrick up in case he wants to ruin dinner by joining us. Soon, we are arriving outside Chez Gibus.

I am sometimes guilty of preconception on a grand scale. I have imagined, as if influenced only by the amateur dramatic societies of middle England during the 1950’s, that the restaurant would be run by a portly chap squeezed into a fully buttoned waistcoat, his perfectly waxed moustache pointing at a quarter to three position underlining a pair of kitchen-heat rouged cheeks. Suffice to say however, one did not envisage the gentleman who greets us as we amble slowly through the door. He is an East Asian man of diminutive stature, dressed in loose fitting chef’s blues, and sporting a long thin straggly grey beard. He greets us in French, and of course, swaps seamlessly into English the moment he realises how far we are going to bite into his Sunday evening if he forces us to order food using any off-piste language skills. It’s already starting to grind with me how embarrassing it is trying to conduct a normal life using a conglomeration of my long forgotten low grade O level French and Ray’s GCE equivalent. Add to the recipe the kind of addling that an early start and a long drive will engender upon the human mind, season it with hunger, simmer for two long, fingernails-on-a-chalkboard minutes et Voila! Soup de Chagrin. Come back Patrick, all is forgiven. How we need his insistent Brogue to steer us manfully away from carnage upon the rocks of lingual ineptitude, toward the becalmed waters of bilingual ability.

Food is prompt, sufficient and delivered with charm. Wine is a half carafe of house red, unspectacular but pleasant enough. Once the meal is concluded and paid for, we thank and bid farewell to this Vietnamese/Frenchman who has received and fed us with graceful and efficient hospitality.

I am designated driver for the journey back. This is my first stint on the ‘wrong’ side of the road for nigh on fifteen years. There is a mantra reverberating around my cranial region, “KEEP RIGHT! KEEP RIGHT! KEEP RIGHT!”. By the time we’re halfway back, I feel totally comfortable with it as long as I have the mantra. It’s the junctions that are the weirdest. But since there is a dearth of other vehicles anyway, we can enjoy the quaint architecture of the genuinely cute village without becoming one of tomorrow’s talking points by crashing through a gate into one of the well manicured lawns.

Once back to the b-n-b, we can digest our dinner and our day whilst planning a route for tomorrow. After a brief description from our hostess of what to expect for breakfast and deciding when we would like to take it, we adjourn to our room. Our room is pretty much spotless. There are small decoupages, humming birds stuck to otherwise plain walls. A brief reconnaissance of the bathroom reveals an en suite. I wonder what en suite is in French? Gosh, how I wish I had listened more to my French teacher at school instead of indulging in teen fantasies involving the mountainous environs which were hidden beneath her roll-neck sweaters. And back from the world of dreams, one cannot help but notice again what a very tidy space our room is. Not for long, because both Ray and myself are not feeling in a tidy mood, what with the fatigue and all. In the morning however, I will be rested and become tidy again. I’m not so sure that Ray requires tidiness in life. He’s always been a little like this. It’s one of his endearing features. In our youth, I was always amused by how he could walk without falling over because once his shoes were removed, within seconds both socks would be dangling halfway off his feet. He is a man of many endearing features.

We settle down to a messy map reading and route planning session. Once we’ve agreed upon our strategy for the morrow, we groove on into what remains of the evening. Ray is skyping home, I do texts. They don’t take long, so I defer to my holiday pottering routine. It is at times like these, I enjoy taking photos of the night creatures mesmerised by, and attracted to, artificial lighting. A Clouded Border becomes the latest addition to my collection of lepidopteran souls.

Soon it is time for sleep. Sleep will require ear plugs and music, because Ray may be snoring. At a distance of five yards, it is enough to clash discordantly with my snoring. As a result, I have resorted to Nirvana. Not in the spiritual sense, in the Seattle sense. Soon however, it becomes apparent that Kurt’s beauteous angst may prove a tad unsuitable on the lullaby front, and he is usurped by Node, a little known combo churning out fairly random dark ambient splurge. Node carry me out into deep, deep space. I am an abductee of their sound, borne willingly upon their nebulous cloudship of dark matter. There beyond, through the worm hole that is the night, the parallel universe of the next morning will, as always, be waiting to greet me.