INTERESTING TIMES 12: KIND STRANGERS

By Andrew Maben

CaledoniaYou’d think that at this point I might have stopped, or at least paused, to take stock, to consider what I thought I was doing, where I thought I might be going. Apparently not. If I had a picture of myself at the time it was arms spread high, head back, running at full tilt. If asked, I would certainly have claimed to be running to embrace life, but who knows? Perhaps I was in headlong flight… In any event I hope you’ll indulge me as I venture a few thoughts from my present vantage, with all the advantages of hindsight.

All kinds of ideals and ideas filled my head, heady visions of possibilities that I was convinced both could and should be realised were confronted with harsh realities that it would seem I believed would be overcome through sheer blind faith. My schoolboy infatuation with Christ, itself born of the loneliness and pain of my schooldays, remained on the one hand as a deep desire to find a way to live a life both just and kind, and on the other had mutated into a certainly unrealistic, and quite probably unhealthy, idealisation, idolatry even, of “Woman”. I still believed in the transformative power of Art, but with no clear notion of how that might be realised in actuality. And of course I had been bewitched by the many utopian notions that were abroad at the time: the promise of a world in which work would be but a small part of lives dedicated to leisure and self-fulfillment; and of course Leary’s Pied Piper call to “turn on, tune in, drop out”. Now I was coming face to face with the difficulties of living a just life in a profoundly unjust world, and as you’ll see making some pretty dubious moral choices as a result. My artistic ambitions were still reeling from my expulsion from art school. My notions of romantic love had received a near-crippling blow at Sally’s hands. Finally I was finding just how difficult it is to “drop out” without the advantages of privilege and celebrity enjoyed by figures like Leary. Then, of course there’s the laughable irony, not to say hypocrisy, of the scion of an English family with upper-middle class aspirations pretending to adopt poverty as a way of life… Alas, I failed to even recognise, let alone confront these conflicts in any meaningful way.

So it was that not many days later I was sitting at an outside table at the Café St. Michel, nursing an espresso, enjoying the waiters studiously ignoring American tourists’ calls of “Garçon!”, and watching the passing parade and the youngsters sitting on the wall of the fountain. My eye was caught by two very attractive girls approaching from the direction of St. André des Arts – the first was the perfect embodiment of chic, thigh-high boots, mini skirt and polo-neck that perfectly flaunted her Bardotesque figure, her companion rail thin and less ostentatiously attired, a Pre-Raphaelite faerie queen. To my astonishment they asked if they might join me, and needless to say I agreed. Well, of course it was not my stunning good looks that had caught their eye, simply that I looked as though I might be able to find some hash… They told me their names – the siren was Xanthe, the sylph Helen – gave me some money and an address, and went on their way. Some hours later I rang the bell of what turned out to be Xanthe’s flat. I was soon, subtly but unmistakably, disabused of any idea that I might have had of bedding Xanthe, or even being allowed to stay for a night or three…

Helen, however, was rather more willing to extend the hand of friendship, and so it was that the two of us were back at the Café St. Michel late one evening. There was a small group of Germans frequenting the Quartier who, rumour had it, were in the habit of robbing people at knife point, so I was a little put out when a couple of them sat down uninvited at our table.

“Wanna buy some hash?” asked the burlier of the two.

“No way,” I replied, “that leads straight to heroin.”

I suppose I had some idea that this would be enough to send them on their way. I was mistaken. We were subjected to an intensive sales spiel, by turns cajoling, pleading, reasoning. Somehow I signalled to Helen to follow my lead, and for the next twenty minutes or so we resisted all their blandishments.

Finally: “You should at least try it once.” And reluctantly we allowed ourselves to be persuaded. Given their reputation, god alone knows what I was thinking in going myself into this bears’ lair, let alone bringing Helen along. Nevertheless, off we went to a grimy piaule in a back street near to Shakespeare & Co.

All five of their little gang were crammed into the tiny space, and Helen and I were offered the only two straight backed chairs. A joint was rolled. Some very potent Afghani.

“What do you feel?” I was asked after taking a first hit.

“Nothing at all,” I lied.

“Take another hit.”

I did.

“Still nothing.”

I passed the joint on to Helen, who also professed to be unaffected.

And so it went. They rolled joint after joint, and we claimed to be completely unaffected. Finally I asked for the loo, where I shook some drops of piss onto blotting paper and wrapped them in foil – in those days I carried all kinds of paraphernalia – before going back into the room.

“Well, we should get going. Thanks for the smoke. And, oh, anyone want to buy some acid?”

Again I ask myself what on Earth I thought I was doing… But I was greeted with gales of laughter.

“So you do smoke?”

“Yeah. That was some really nice hash. Thanks.”

More laughter. They bought five “trips” and off we went. Luckily I never ran into them again…

Jean and Le Dorze were back in town by now, and they introduced me to a friend by the name of Gilbert who worked, appropriately enough, at the Gibert Jeune bookshop on Place St. Michel and lived with his mother in the suburb of Robinson. Gilbert had very kindly offered me a place to stay, more or less indefinitely. Sometimes we’d take the train together from the Gare Montparnasse, sometimes I’d meet him at a café near the Robinson station. On one of these latter occasions a lonely looking middle-aged man was sitting at one of the tables, gazing moodily into space. His face was remarkably similar to mine, or how I might have imagined mine would look at that age. With something of a shock, I somehow became convinced that he in fact was me, that this was some backwards deja vu… I had, and still have, no idea how to process this perception, nor a companion experience on a bus in Hollywood some years later…

I might never have got around to leaving Paris, were it not for Helen. She and I had formed a friendship of sorts, and when she more or less begged me to accompany her to England to visit her brother, who was with the USAF and stationed somewhere in East Anglia, I was fairly easily persuaded.

So we found ourselves on deck on the Calais-Dover ferry as the sun set on a blustery autumn day. She affected surprise when I tried to kiss her.

“But do you love me?”

“Yes. Yes, I think I do,” I lied, and she melted into my embrace, though it would be several days before we would have the opportunity to sleep together…

I have only the haziest of memories of sitting around a kitchen table with her brother and his wife, before we made our way to Brighton, where I invited us to stay with Tom and Penny…

Alas, our little idyll was to be short-lived. “But do you love me?” became a persistent irritant. We went up to London to see Blue Cheer at the Roundhouse. We were getting ready for the show in a friend’s flat in Notting Hill and had each dropped a hit of acid. Helen was sitting at the dressing table, putting on makeup.

“Almost ready?” I asked.

“Do you love me?” she answered. It’s hard – for me at least – to lie on acid, so I prevaricated.

But she persisted…

On the tube to Chalk Farm: “Do you love me?”

At the Roundhouse, repeatedly: “Do you love me?”

Finally, in desperation, I took refuge inside a speaker cabinet on stage. Blue Cheer advertised themselves as “the loudest band in the world”, so I heard nothing but the band, guitar howls that conjured a vision of a dying dinosaur, but Helen stood in front of me, mouthing over and over again “Do you love me?”

It didn’t help that our hip bones were exactly the same width, so I’d get bruises whenever we fucked – I suppose she did too, but I’m afraid I gave no thought to that…

Things came to a head one afternoon when I ran out of cigarettes.

“I’m going out for some fags.”

“I’ll come with you.”

“There’s no need.” Hell, the shop was two doors down on the other side of a narrow street.

“OK,” I sighed. But I’d reached the end of my tether, and when we got back to the flat I told her she’d have to leave. Tears ensued, but she left. And then Penny let me know that I’d overstayed my welcome too. So I found a little room to rent in Hove. Where did I get the money, you may be wondering. Well, I was always dealing quid deals of hash, which kept me in smoke, and I somehow managed to get a job in a little hippy café in the Lanes. The pay wasn’t much, but I was allowed to eat free of charge – I still remember fondly their yogurt and muesli…

Around this time, Nigel, a friend of Tom and Penny’s, planned a trip to the West Country in his ancient Austin 7, and somehow I inveigled an invitation to join him. I think we made it as far as Plymouth and back… And one mad night in Windsor. I was with Nigel’s girlfriend Jill, though how we happened to be there, and how we happened to be together entirely escape me now. Yet somehow we were at the Castle wall.

“Let’s go in!” said Jill.

“But…”

She laughed, turned and started to climb a gate. She jumped, turned again and beckoned me…

We cavorted on the lawn for a few minutes, ran back to the gate and left…

I indulged my artistic impulses whilst in Hove by actually completing a painting, long since lost, and certainly not very good. As I recall, it depicted two naked women, kneeling, their backs arched and facing each other in an alien desert landscape, a rainbow sprouting from their nipples arced between the two…

Then one evening in December, a dusting of snow on the ground, I came home late from the café to find Helen sitting on the doorstep.

“Please let me in,” she begged.

Did I mention she was from Texas? “I went back to Paris and got back with my old boyfriend. He’s black, but he just can’t satisfy me like you. Please make love to me again. Even just once”

Oh dear. Poor sweet girl… I made her sleep on the floor next to the bed and masturbated. Loudly. In the morning I sent her on her way. I know, what a bastard…

By Christmas I was almost completely broke so I couldn’t afford the room any longer, and early in January I went back to Paris. Apparently I felt that in fact the world did owe me a living – or if not the world, then my friends and acquaintances…

Jean certainly seemed glad enough to see me and took me to visit Le Dorze. We had a smoke and then set off to Le Dorze’s grandma’s, where she graciously offered me a bed in her tiny spare room.

The three of us were often joined by Jean’s friend Minet, who got his nickname from the fact that as he actually held a job he could afford to be a snappy dresser – at least compared with we scruffy three. We would meet every day, smoke, prowl the Quartier Latin, spend hours listening to records at PAN…

I listened with envy to Jean’s plans to leave for India in the spring, to spend the summer there and return in the autumn.

After a couple of weeks, I decided I should move on. I could feel my presence becoming burdensome at Le Dorze’s grandmother’s. Nothing was really happening, just hanging out with no real plans and precious little in the way of amusement. We were all sitting at a little café by the metro, Jean quietly sardonic, Dorze bored, self-absorbed, indifferent and Minet concerned, when I told them my plan to hitch to Copenhagen and meet up with Erik.

When we had finished our coffee, they walked me back to the flat. Standing beneath the metro, saying our goodbyes, Minet surprised me by asking, “Do you have any money?”

“Well, yes – a bit.”

“How much is that?”

“About ten francs…”

“That’s not enough!” he said, putting his hand in his pocket, “here, take this,” and handed me a crisp new one hundred franc note and a gram of hash…

Early next morning I got off the metro at Porte de la Chapelle and walked out past the peripherique to the on-ramp to the A1 north.

A series of uneventful, unmemorable rides carried me steadily northward across the grey winter landscape, black scarecrow trees and fields dusted with snow…

It must have been close to midnight when I arrived at the Belgian border, just beyond Lille. I walked across, showing my passport to indifferent guards, and found a spot beneath the glare of the last of the border floodlights. Traffic was light, not to say sparse, but I didn’t wait as long as I feared I would have to. An old black Maigret-style Citroen pulled over. The Maigret-style driver leaned across and rolled down the window.

“I can take you to Ghent.”

“Perfect,” I said, climbing in.

We drove in silence through the black night.

Then, “Aren’t you afraid to get in a car with a stranger in the middle of the night?” he asked in an amused tone.

“Not particularly. I don’t have a lot to steal. Aren’t you afraid to let a complete stranger into your car, in the middle of the night?”

“Oh no!” he laughed, “I’m the chief of police in Ghent.”

I gulped at the thought of the hash in my pocket…

We made desultory small talk from time to time, but mostly rode in silence. I must have dozed off.

“Hey!” I shook my head awake. “Hey, it’s raining.”

I looked outside. We were entering a town, and yes, a nasty looking rain was falling.

“Listen, I have to stop at the police station anyway. I’ll drop you there and you can wait until the rain stops. It’s not as if you’re going to catch a ride at this hour, anyway.”

That was certainly true, it must be close to three in the morning by now.

“Thanks. Very kind.” Words, and a feeling, that would repeat themselves many times in the course of the coming weeks.

We pulled up in front of the police station, an imposing, ancient seeming building with a massive metal-barred and studded wooden double door set in its corner. Within, the worn flagstone floor, heavy, blackened and nocked, massive plain wooden tables and benches gave a sense of going back in time. As did the three Rembrandt-visaged policemen in their ornate, old-fashioned uniforms.

“Hey, guys, I found this young man on the road. He’s on his way to Copenhagen.”

This announcement met with a gentle round of laughter.

“It’s raining outside, and cold. Give him some coffee and let him wait here till the rain stops.”

He shook my hand, wished me luck and left, leaving me standing just inside the door looking at the three policemen, who looked mildly displeased that their card game had been interrupted. One of them stood.

“Here, why don’t you sit,” he said, indicating one of the two other tables. I straddled the bench, while he went to a corner of the room. After some clattering, he came back with a tin mug of steaming black coffee before rejoining his partners. I pulled out a book, sipped coffee, read and listened to their murmurs and occasional quiet laughs, losing myself in Dinesen’s Gothic Tales. Was I submerged in her imagined world, or was her world somehow suffusing mine?

I looked up at the sound of the opening door.

“Rain’s stopped. You can be on your way.”

I downed the last of the coffee, grabbed my bag, asked directions to the Antwerp road and headed out into the night. The street was softened by a gauzy white mist. Blurred street light globes with gentle glowing haloes, my solitary footsteps echoing back to me across the black canal, lent the scene the air of another time and I felt myself, for a moment, the hero of some gothic romance, setting off in pursuit of fortune and adventure. Wending my way through narrow cobbled streets that led me to a wider thoroughfare, where I set down my bag and took up my post, by a yellow road sign that stated “Antwerp”, and waited…

A truck rolled by, a couple of cars. Drops splashed down into the silent street from branches and eaves. And I waited.

Another car approached, I put out my thumb. Then, realising it was a taxi, I waved in negation. But he stopped and backed up.

“No, no. I don’t need a taxi.”

“I know. That’s OK. Where are you going?”

“Copenhagen.”

He laughed. He was a small man, thinning black hair above a round face with round glasses, atop a round body dressed in a nondescript jacket and creased white shirt, open at the neck.

“I can’t take you there! But you’re not going anywhere now. I’m getting off work. If you like, I’ll fix you breakfast and then I’ll take you to the main road out of town. It’ll be easier to find a ride there.” I’d scarcely eaten in twenty four hours, it was a tempting offer. We drove a short way, and parked in front of a little row house.

“Shh, my wife is sleeping.” We crept through the front door, down a passage way and into a small sitting room.

“Please, sit down, make yourself at home. I’ll get breakfast. Do you like Polish sausage?”

I perched on the edge of a small light-coloured, flower-patterned sofa and looked around the little room. At the far end, a small dining table, lace table cloth, a vase of dried flowers, two wooden chairs, next to a floor to ceiling curtain taking up the whole wall. A matching beige curtain took up the whole of the wall facing the sofa. A low sideboard and a coffee table, small framed pictures and some knickknacks completed the scene.

My host returned, carrying two plates. The three eggs, generous chunk of sausage, bread and butter were a welcome sight, and I didn’t need to be told to eat.

We silently shovelled down the food. When our plates were empty and wiped clean, he piled them on the coffee table and turned to me.

“You know, I envy you,” he said. “When I was young I always dreamed that I would travel in tropical lands. But I married when I was eighteen, so it was not to be…”

He got up and walked to the curtain-pull.

“I decided that if I could not go out and see the world, then I would bring the world to me.”

And with a shy flourish, he pulled the curtains open on both walls. Dim shadows of plants in the blackness of the night outside, became, with the flick of a light switch, the brilliant greens of a luxuriant miniature jungle that occupied the narrow space outside. I gasped in astonishment, for there were not just jungle plants. Perched among and upon the branches were parrots and macaws, fluorescent greens, brilliant reds and blues and yellows. Curled in a corner a huge python, and draped along a branch, head hanging low with tongue darting as it seemed to eye me through the glass, an anaconda.

But I only noticed the birds and snakes after taking in the real wonder of this tiny urban forest. For proudly pacing the jungle floor were two beautiful spotted leopards and a shining black panther.

My jaw hung open as, eyes glowing, seeming somehow to stand taller, his portly body, comical a moment before, become imposing, he described the animals to me. Yes, he had brought the world to him. As some make the world their home, he had made his home the world, and it transformed him. No longer an inconsequential toiler with a mundane job in a provincial, if picturesque town in a country famous only for beers and as a synonym for boring, he was a globe-trotter, an explorer, a man of consequence.

“What’s going on in here?” His no-longer sleeping wife, evidently. Fierce, narrow faced, sharp eyed and sharper tongued, her hair disheveled, clutching closed her pink quilted dressing gown.

The fire faded, but did not entirely disappear from his eyes.

“I was just…”

“No, no. He must go.” Casting a disapproving look at our empty plates. “He must go now.”

He gave her a brief, imploring look, but finding no sympathy there, turned resignedly to me.

“I’m sorry…”

“No, no,” I told him, “Thank you. You’ve been very kind,” picking up my bag and squeezing past his wife towards the front door.

At the door he pointed me on my road, and again, “I’m sorry.”

“No, no. Thank you. Extraordinary. Truly, thank you.”

“She doesn’t understand.”

“I do.” For a moment the light returned to his eyes.

I walked out into the enchanted night. Perhaps I could be forgiven for thinking, out into my enchanted life.

By now a grey light had infused the sky, the fog risen. I found the road and was soon enough on my way, through Antwerp and across the Dutch border. The weak sun shone in a chilly powder blue sky. A nondescript beige VW Beetle pulled over for me.

“Rotterdam?”

“Yes, please.”

The driver was small, wiry, his hair close-cropped, his skin tanned nut-brown. He reminded me a little of Donald Pleasence in Cul de Sac. I must have dozed off… When I awoke we were driving past dunes, a sandy wind-swept beach. Noticing that I was awake, he glanced at me, offered a smile.

“I like to be fit,” he told me. “I like to swim in the sea and run naked on the sand…”

I didn’t quite know what to say to this, just looked at him rather bemusedly.

“Would you like to join me?”

Not bloody likely, I thought to myself.

“Um. No. No, I really don’t have time. I have to get to Copenhagen.”

He sighed softly and gave a sad little smile…

The evening found me at a junction on the outskirts of Groningen. The sky was overcast and a bitter wind blew from the east. Not much traffic… An old tramp approached and gestured a request for a cigarette. I couldn’t keep a match alight in the wind, and he held out a hand. I passed the matches and he demonstrated how to strike the match into cupped hands shielded by the matchbook. A useful lesson that I have continued to make use of almost daily…

It grew darker, colder, the wind now laced with a few sparse snowflakes. After some hours of foot-stamping, shivering, hand-blowing waiting, at last a car stopped.

“I live close to the German border. Listen, you’d be crazy to try to get any further tonight. Let me take you back to my house. You can have something to eat, a good night’s sleep, and in the morning I will leave you close to the border.” As you may imagine, I was only too glad to accept…

Once we arrived at my rescuer’s house he called his wife to fix me a bite to eat, then turned to me.

“My little boy has just moved from his cot to a bed. Please wait here,” he gestured to the dining room, “and I will move him back to his cot. You can have his bed tonight.”

I protested feebly, and he insisted, so I took a seat at the table. Soon his wife brought a large bowl of steaming home-made soup and a thick ham and cheese sandwich, which were followed by a cup of hot chocolate and biscuits. To be warm, and fed, in the company of these two kind people as the storm outside grew stronger… I was bathed in a glow of gratitude, comfort, relief…

After his wife had served me a hearty breakfast, and given me a bag of sandwiches, we hit the road again. Soon enough we were at the approach to the border.

“I’ll drop you here.” I offered profuse thanks, waved as he drove back the way we had come.

It soon was apparent that no-one was going to stop for me on this side of the border, so I decided to walk to the German side and hope for better luck there.

The Dutch border guards were friendly, joked with me when I told them my destination. Some five hundred metres or so down the road was the German guard post.

“Step inside, please.”

I stepped inside, approached a counter.

“Your passport.”

I put it on the counter.

“So. Where are you going?”

“Copenhagen.”

“Ah. And you have money?”

“Yes.”

“So. Show me, please.”

I fished out Minet’s hundred franc note, put it next to my passport. The guard raised an eyebrow.

“That is all?”

“Yes. It’s enough.”

“It’s not enough.”

“Tonight I’ll be with my friend in Copenhagen, and I have money waiting for me there.”

“Wait, please.”

He picked up my passport, walked to a desk, picked up the telephone. The tone of the conversation did not seem to bode well for me. He walked back to the counter, shaking his head.

“No.” He put my passport down.

“No?”

“No.” He opened the passport, found a rubber stamp and inkpad, stamped the page, took a pen and scribbled a few words. He placed Minet’s money between the pages, closed the passport, handed it back to me.

“Now you must go back.”

So I plodded back to the Dutch side.

“You again?” the guard laughed.

“Yes, I’m afraid so. The Germans wouldn’t let me in.”

“Well now. If the Germans don’t want you, why should we?” I had a vision of a life spent eking a living in the no-man’s land between the borders, surviving on insects and wild roots…

“I’ll go straight to Amsterdam and have a ticket to England sent to me there.”

Another burst of laughter, but then my passport was stamped and I was on my way back down the road. I was lucky enough to get a ride more or less straight away going all the way to Amsterdam, a journey whose highlight was the traversal of the Zuider Zee causeway. Sometime in the afternoon we pulled up in front of Amsterdam’s Central Station.

“This is probably the best place for you. Good luck!” And off he went.

The station forecourt was crowded with pedestrians and cyclists, and I stood bewildered for several minutes.

“Excuse me!” I’d seen a friendly looking face, a bearded, duffel-coat-wearing, book-carrying student.

“Excuse me, I’ve just arrived. I wonder if you know somewhere where I could stay?” (Yes, in those days you could ask this of a perfect stranger, and reasonably hope for a helpful reply).

“Yes, I think so,” he answered in near-perfect English. “You should try the student ship Caledonia. When you get there, just ask anyone.” He gave me directions and off I went.

It was a bit of a hike to the docks, but the ship was easy enough to find. I climbed the gangplank, and didn’t even have to ask – the first person to see me as I stepped onto the deck took one look at me and asked if I needed a place to sleep.

“Well, yes, I do.”

“I have a friend who I think has still a little space in his cabin.”

“Thanks, that’d be great…”

A few minutes later we were knocking on a cabin door.

“Sure, I think there’s room for one more, if you don’t mind sleeping on the floor.”

As well as Pieter, the student whose cabin it was, there were already three Germans camping out there – two guys and a girl, all of whose names have, I’m afraid, long since faded from memory…

I easily fell into the casual routine of life aboard the Caledonia. The University had an agreement with the Amsterdam police that the ship fell outside police jurisdiction, unless the University authorities specifically requested a police presence. What resulted was an ad hoccommune run on loosely anarchist lines. Hashish and other drugs were freely available. Almost every cabin hosted one or more visitors as well as the student to whom it was assigned. There was a bar, where drinks could be cheaply bought, or cadged if you were broke, and a subsidised cafeteria serving three nutritious meals a day. The great thing about the cafeteria was that for two guilders you could buy a meal ticket that entitled you to one full meal, plus as many refills as you liked of vegetables and dessert. People would eat in groups, taking it in turns to be the one to have the full meal, while each of the others would fill up on veggies and pudding. And no, if you are wondering, it didn’t occur to me, and probably not to most of the ship’s other denizens, that this was in any way dishonest – whatever I may think in retrospect.

These arrangements meant that there was no necessity to leave the ship at all. Of course I visited the famous Club Paradiso, where drug use was unregulated, a couple of times, and occasionally of an early morning a couple of us might hit the dock to steal a crate of custard and a crate of chocolate milk, all in litre bottles, which milkmen kindly left on doorsteps for our convenience. No moral scruples here either, I’m afraid…

One night the German girl who shared the cabin floor with us crept into my sleeping bag after the lights were out…

“Don’t worry, we are communists. We must share everything, no?” Her boyfriend told me in the morning. I was certainly in no position to argue the point, though it seemed, and still seems to me there is something deeply flawed in any argument that classes a woman as a thing, reduces her to the status of chattel or object… Though no doubt I have treated women thus. Yes, I’m deeply flawed. Like you.

I’d managed to put through a phone call home, and the parents reluctantly, and extremely grudgingly, agreed to send me enough money to pay for a ticket back to England. Before the money arrived, though, my twenty-first birthday rolled around. I smoked a lot of hash, had a ludicrous cross-purpose conversation in a corridor with a biker who noticed the STP sticker on the back of my jacket. I’d put it there in reference to the psychedelic, he was referring to the engine additive. I’ll let you imagine how that one went… Then an American sailor decided to take me under his wing. “You can’t drink alone on your birthday!” He led me to the bar and plied me with beers. Sometime later the sky outside lit up in a brilliant flash. Everyone in the bar rushed out on deck, to witness a conflagration on the other side of the harbour, where an oil storage tank had exploded. “Birthday fireworks!” my American friend declared…

Somehow, while waiting for my money to arrive, I had come up with, or been talked into, a scheme to buy a VW van and drive it to India with the three Germans. I had been left the princely sum of £200 by my paternal grandmother, and thought this would be more than adequate to buy the vehicle and pay my share of the expenses of the trip. So once the ticket money arrived, the four of us set out to hitch to Ostend.

We split into pairs and left at the crack of dawn. The ground was snow-dusted and a bitter wind was blowing… Astonishingly, we all arrived in time to board a Dover ferry that disembarked in the early afternoon. Perhaps not so astonishingly, the English Immigration officer did not take kindly to my friends. I called home, hoping that I could persuade my parents to stand a guarantors, which went over much as you might expect. So regretfully I bade my friends farewell, promising to get in touch as soon as I’d found a van. It does not seem to have occurred to me to wonder how, not having ever learned to drive, I would manage to get the van over to the Continent… The Germans were put on the next boat back to Ostend, and I set off to thumb my way back to Eastbourne…

It was slow going. As the sky closed in with the dusk I found myself at the outskirts of Folkestone. Cars were not stopping. It was getting darker. It was getting colder. I began to be afraid that I might be stuck all night on the road…

Behind me was a row of half a dozen or so houses. I knocked on a door. No one answered. I knocked on another door, “Excuse me, I can’t seem to get a ride. Perhaps..?” But the door had slammed in my face before I could even make my plea. And so it went until I had finally, fruitlessly, knocked on the door of the last house…

My heart sinking, I returned to the roadside. More cars passed without stopping. By now it was dark, snow was beginning to fall gently, but threatening to become fiercer. In the distance I saw the lights of one more dwelling. In what was now close to desperation I began to trudge towards the light. At last, after walking perhaps a little more than half a mile, I found myself in front of a small cottage. A warm light glowed through the windows, smoke curled from the chimney. Hoping against hope, I knocked. I could hear muffled voices, and after a moment the door opened!

A very old lady was standing there.

“Yes? What do you want?” she asked, a little suspiciously, but not unkindly.

“I’m trying to get back to Eastbourne, but I haven’t been able to get a ride. I wonder if…”

“Let him in, Maud,” came a man’s voice from within.

Maud opened the door wide. “Come in, come in. Take off your shoes. Hang up your coat.”

As I shook off those outer garments, I introduced myself.

“Fix the boy something to eat, Maud,” said her husband, and she disappeared into the kitchen.

“Come and sit down.” With a grateful sigh, I took a seat in a wooden armchair by the hearth.

“I know what it’s like to be out in the cold. I was in the trenches in the Great War…”

We chatted slowly about the weather, my travels, until Maud came in with a tray bearing a big, steaming bowl of soup, a couple of bread doorsteps and a mug of tea.

The food was delicious, the more so seasoned with relief and gratitude…

As the evening drew on, they produced blankets and cushions that I arranged in the cupboard under the stairs. Which is where I slept a deep, dreamless sleep, snug.

They woke me early, with breakfast of porridge and tea. When I was putting on my coat, Maud proffered a brown paper bag. “You’ll be needing some lunch…” When I opened the bag later, I found two thick sandwiches and an apple.

I bade this kind couple farewell and set off, arriving at home without incident.

That evening, or perhaps the next day, I saw the news that on the night I had spent with Maud and her husband, another hitch-hiker, stranded on the road not five miles from their cottage, had managed to break into a car to take shelter. His frozen, lifeless body had been discovered there the next morning… Yes, I owe that kind old soldier and his wife my life.

I have absolutely no recollection whatsoever of this brief sojourn at home, so I conclude that it was none too pleasant. I do know that they refused to release my bequest until such time as I had some more prudent plan for its disposition. And I don’t think I stayed more than a couple of nights…

So I wound up at Grannie’s, who welcomed me with open arms. She offered a sympathetic ear for my complaints about my recent reception at home, treated me to her wonderful cooking. I knew she had stomach cancer, and that it was at an advanced stage. I knew that her doctors had seen fit to keep this truth from her. She gave no hint that she felt herself to be gravely ill, and I like to hope that indeed she had none… I hope her memory of me is as fond as mine of her.

I thought I’d try my luck again in London. I still had the phone number that Sophie had given me last summer in Nice, and when I got off the train at Paddington I rang her up.

“Hello, Sophie? It’s Andrew. From Nice, remember?”

“Of course I remember. Where are you?” The “of course” came as a nice surprise – I’ve never been able to envision myself as offering any very deep impression…

“I’m at Paddington. I just came into town.”

“Would you like to come over for tea?”

Of course I told her I’d love to, and with her address and some directions I set off for Notting Hill…

I went down the basement stairs and rang the bell. The door opened and to my disconcertitude I found myself face to face with Sally.

She appeared equally astonished.

“What are you doing here?” she asked simultaneously, as I asked, “What are you doing here?”

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