“The boulevard Noir is inhuman.” – Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea
I’ve been here before. Last time it was June. Not warm but warmer, and we choose the bus that time as well though we regret it. After waiting, after a false start, after what feels like the longest, ugliest, short ride past concrete walkways and warehouses, the bus is forced to detour. The children just want to get to the beach, are already hungry and sulky. We’ve been driving past derelict industrial buildings instead of sand, bumping over train tracks on the outskirts of the port of Calais where young men gather. Some sit on stacks of ties, trash and rucksacks spread out beside them. There is a campfire at a rusted crossing, smoke rising to join the white cloud above Calais. Most are wandering, and we get only glances of dark skin, patient looks as we pass, but everywhere there is human movement. It is spread across what without it would appear a post-apocalyptic or at least post-industrial landscape.
It’s not apparent if the bus driver has lost his way or his senses. Eventually our way is blocked by a police van. A group of angry young men gathered on one side of the road, a group of officers taken the high ground on the other. It’s the first time I’ve seen any attempt by authority to restrict anyone’s movement. There is dangerous tension in the air but our bus driver is oblivious to it and only wants to get through. Our vehicle is held, and after a one-sided argument, the driver is forced to go back, swearing under his breath in French, around the round-about we have just passed. He does so inexplicably and to the consternation of other drivers and we his passengers, by reversing, before speeding off down an exit off of it that looks no more promising than the last.It takes a very long time to get to the city centre.
Along the way a middle aged British couple loudly complain. He is dully indignant, she, sarcastic. ‘Why don’t they do something about these people,’ she exclaims airily, making us all complicit, it feels. ‘Who wants to come here and see all this,’ she says more pointedly to the man who says something, perhaps, in reply or agreement but which I can’t hear over the rev of the engine. The whole vehicle shakes just then as our furious driver cuts a corner too close to the kerb and the rear tire of the bus brushes against it, knocking us all about for a moment though the bus hardly pauses. ‘For fuck’s sake,’ the man curses, and then the woman has his ear again but I’ve my hands full with keeping the children from tumbling out of their coveted seats on the bus which is full to capacity as it rounds another bend.
The memory of this returns to me, but foggily, as I step out of the Calais terminal. Have two years or just one passed since then? Time has slipped. Keeps slipping, even as I’m recounting it. I’ve walked by the car rental desks inside the terminal, so in a way, I’ve made my choice. The shuttle bus arrives as I am considering going back. Taking this as a sign, I get on board, handing over the couple of euros that I purchased from the bureau de change. There is only myself and a couple of other men at his hour. The driver knows the one who had been talking about his ex-wife on the phone. This time, we travel a different route. We turn right instead of left, heading towards the beach and not away from it. There aren’t buildings just fences. Triple rowed, whole stretches shining with newness, their tops covered with razor-barbed rolls of UN concertina. There are cameras, more fences, raised ridges and grass covered trenches which protect the approach to the port. We pass several police vans parked on the shoulder, at corners, beneath underpasses. But no people. Even the officers remain in their vehicles. Eventually a few empty structures loom across some low grass. It looks as if nothing living could thrive here. The Avenue du Commandant Cousteau is inhuman. Like police vans. Like fences. Sartre would recognise it immediately for what it is.
This time around, progress is swift albeit less Swiftian. Follows a path we may have walked on our return back in June. All the same, I’m glad to have chosen the shuttle. Fencing give the area the feel of a grim, glass labyrinth. One which might make more sense if I wasn’t viewing it from a moving vehicle, or might not. There is a fear of getting lost even though these barriers are transparent. I’m used to seeing defensives built facing the sea. Between our house and the white cliffs every farmer’s field contains the remains of old bunkers or hollowed out gun emplacements. Rabbits and foxes lair in them now. Playing war games after the sun has gone down. Here, the fortifications face the land. A hastily made front waiting for an unknown attack. The very lack of people on foot is enough to give pause to anyone contemplating walking their perimeter. I imagine bulls waiting inside police vans. Ochre coloured shadows in the dim light.
Without people in the frame, in the absence of those who are meant to be stopped, it is easy to feel nothing for their plight. There is no mistaking however, the several mile long sign telling people to keep out. Out of the sea? Out of Britain. The longer I look at the passing fences, the more uneasy I am about which side of the siege I’m on. Could have the attack have begun already? Will I be allowed to return? In the news migrants are shown moving in waves, a bacillus in the blood of Europe, a new Great Mortality flowing along trade routes from ancient war zones. I shouldn’t be worried, of course. Despite being an economic migrant myself, I have the right skin colour. Though I feel less safe, but that’s the point, than I did several years ago. Just this week at my wife’s place of work a man has been refused his visa because he makes too little money. Despite his wife and children being British he faces being separated from them. Deported across the Atlantic with no certainty of when or if he’ll be allowed back. While his situation isn’t one I wish to find myself in, I am unable in good faith to say I can imagine the sort facing those who razor wire is intended to keep out.
Not all fences or barriers are overt. It is my last thought as the town finally takes over and demands my attention. The bus lets us off beside the Gare de Callais-Ville though you can’t see it from where we are parked. The sky is grey shading to black. A storm the colour of a fresh bruise is sweeping in from the Channel. There’s the famous clock tower looming over Rodin’s Les Bourgeois de Calais, surrounded by traffic and the gates standing open to the Parc Saint Pierre. Two years ago, its dappled avenues and green lawns are full of people, mostly young men who look to be of African or Middle Eastern extraction. Many have sleeping bags and fashionable rucksacks, the former rolled out on the grass. A good number are stretched out picnicking, as anyone would. Yet more sit on park benches texting or talking or just patiently waiting. As I cross to the station, I wonder if they’re still there. Still waiting. With damp coats and wet bags. Flowering bushes uprooted to form crude witches’ huts. A war of nerves being waged with Les Bourgeois’ modern descendants. I hope not. The air is cold and a chill rain looks poised to fall any minute now. But it would be a better place than the other side of the port where the buildings stand broken windowed and streaked with rust.
Again, I’m tempted to stop at the nearest bar. Order a coffee, a beer, a glass of Pernod. Soak up the perks of being in France. Calais isn’t Paris but I can still indulge myself. But everything is going too smoothly and so I’m hustled along. I purchase my train ticket at the counter and only have enough time to get some cash from the bank on the corner across from the station. To get from one to the other, I walk through a crowd of people standing in small groups outside the station. Men, mostly, but a few women are mixed in up with them as well. I’m tempted to think they’re all just waiting for trains, to Paris or Le Havre or more regional destinations. That might be all that has brought them here. But only a few of them are in the actual station even though the skies threaten rain.
There is a certain indifference to their posture, as well, the slump of their bodies against the cement wall, that makes me suspect that some will be waiting longer than the next train to Boulogne-sur-Mer. There is no air of young people on a school holiday, nor any organising figures. No one speaks to me as I move through the crowd so this may be entirely my own imagination. You have to accept uncertainty in a foreign place, especially since I don’t speak French past a few pleasantries. Enough to order a coffee or a beer. I can’t ask anyone anything even if there was time or I had some reason to do so. What business is it of mine, after all, why they’re waiting here or where they are from or where they are going? The fact I think it at all makes me feel ashamed.
In a matter of days there will be a different crowd gathered. Asking these questions. Waving placards and shouting. Smoke and tear gas fogging the same bit of pavement as I stand on. Anti-refugee protestors supporting the extreme right-wing group Pegida, outnumbered by police in riot gear, will be gathered in the place where these other figures have been quietly standing. Dangerous men, angry, frustrated and frightened, and with no better sense of the future or a solution to the crisis I suspect, than I have as I stand there.
At the bank, there are several cash machines outside but no one using them. Inside there is a single machine, and a double queue of customers waiting in front of it. It might be because of the weather. It could be. But it is not raining yet, just letting the burghers of Calais know it’s about to. I use the free machine, while staring at the customers inside who are looking at me through the glass. From the other side of where I’m standing, I suspect customers can see the park and the edge of the pavement where those in front of the train station are standing. But then, the angle might be wrong. I can’t say absolutely. Rain hits the back of my neck, like so many wet fingertips reminding me to hurry. Having gotten my cash while the others continue to queue inside the bank, I cross the street back to the station, passing the same faces. They stand there waiting in the rain while I step inside the station.
Before long my platform appears on the board. I go down the stairs and stand next to another fence. It’s also topped with razor wire. Beside it there is a sign: DANGER DE MORT. The buzz of high voltage audible behind the fence even if one could not read or see the symbol of a figure being struck down by a thunderbolt. Beyond, at an angle, I can just make out of the gilt covered face of the clock tower if I crane my neck. As I do, I realise I’ve neglected to take a photo of it. By now the rain unleashes itself in earnest. The temperature, already cool, plummets. I hunch myself forward under the cover of the platform but the wind makes it impossible to avoid the weather entirely. Collar up, hands thrust in my pockets, the edges of my mackintosh whipping around my legs, I watch the tracks for the approaching engine. There are only a handful of people on the platform and we do not have long to wait.
Once aboard the train—how I love trains in France!—the rocking motion of the carriage echoes the smooth sensation of the ferry though it is gentler still. Rain on train windows as reassuring as a Gallic shrug. Despite history proving me a liar, I tell myself that ‘Nothing bad can ever happen on a train!’ In just a few weeks there will be a horrible head-on crash in Bavaria. Even looking over the numbers of dead and injured, and noting the deceased were all men between the ages of twenty-four and fifty-nine, will not shake my simplistic faith. To experience Europe at its best, I believe, is to see it from a train window.
Coming from a country as I do where passenger trains outside of a few major cities are rare, I am convert. In the US there’s only one that crosses the country, full of old ladies, drug dealers, and the occasional foreign tourist, its ageing silver carriages repaired in places with duct tape. In the decade and a half I’ve spent living in Europe I’ve recognised it is not the euro or Brussels that signifies the true value of union—but the train and one’s ability to ride it, comfortably over long distances in just about every member country, and to find more than retirees and tourists sharing the carriage when you do. I’ve circumnavigated Etna on a train in Sicily that also serves as the local school bus. When we get on holding our luggage it is so crammed with children at the beginning of its route, that they hang halfway out of doors and windows as it sways and struggles up the basalt flanks of the volcano.
Today, the crowd is young as well, College or university students, if I had to guess. They sit in the comfortable seats conversing in pairs and trios. Listening to music, laughing politely and looking sleekly well dressed. I trade off staring at the rain-streaked French countryside with Wolf Solent. Wessex, its imaginary cousin, feels a long way away despite the similarity in weather. Even cocooned in my sense of contentment and safety, it is hard being absent from loved ones in such circumstances. In a foreign country, I needlessly remind myself. In Europe but not Britain—which is and isn’t the same thing, however you look at it. There is the fear of what will happen in my absence. How the family will cope. Who will get word to me if an emergency occurs, or the cat gets lost, since I don’t carry a mobile phone, and never mind the time it will take to return. There is no quick fix at this distance, even if I did.
That I’ve grown unaccustomed to one of my former chief pleasures, namely of traveling alone, only depresses me further. It’s not the solitude but the weight of retrospection that makes me feel shipwrecked from the others. All my wrongs pile up, mistakes, failings, summoned into existence by a mixture of guilt, boredom and longing. When I get home, I promise, I’ll be a more loving and better person. Not as selfish, less isolated in the midst of the bounty of family that is now inaccessible to me. Above all I wish I’d stopped for a coffee or that glass of Pernod. But it’s too late. Everything is going to schedule so I’ve got to wait. Outside we pass a quarry with a deep looking lake. Distant dunes flash by suggesting the sea isn’t far. At the two stops for Boulogne all the attractive students get off and I’m left to my own. I ignore the shades gathered around my table and go back to reading my book. The eponymous Wolf ever in the jaws of his sexual desire and his encumbering ‘mythology’ is close to coming to blows with the local gentry. I find self-pity replaced by a rising tide of libido and an inexplicable erection.
E.M. Edwards is a writer living on the South East coast of England. His work has appeared in Goreyesque and in the anthology Aphrodite Terra. He has a collection of flash fiction called The White Owl available on Amazon and is currently finishing his debut novel.