Night and Calais pt. III: Town of Doctors — E.M. Edwards

“The town itself, let us admit, is ugly.”Albert Camus, The Plague

Rang-du-Fliers is not much to look at as the train reaches the station. Not exactly a pearl of the Opal coast. It isn’t my destination however, just where the train lets me off. Only three other passengers alight here beside myself. A modest, modern building roofed in red tile, reached by a series of stairs and walkways extending over the tracks, greets us. The rain is slowly drying up, hurried on by a fierce easterly wind. There is enough moisture in the air to make the treads slippery, for me to put on my cap, as I rise and descend.

At home I have looked over bus schedules with some scepticism. In a pinch, I have decided, it is possible to walk the distance from the train station to the seaside town where the hospital is. Certainly not far as the crow flies or the computer maps and I’m prepared to jog a little, if I must. Which is delusional considering the distance and my unfamiliarity with both towns. A part of me knows this as well.

That there is a multiplicity of hospitals and an array of lesser clinics awaiting me, I am wholly unaware. Discovery will come later. In the meantime my luck holds, saving me from myself, as a bus I pulls up only minutes after I step out. Not the bus listed on the paper I clutch in my hand, already damp and starting to tear along a fold. When I inquire if it goes to the hospital, the driver nods and says, ‘Les hôpital, oui.’ That’s good enough for me and I get on, innocent that I am.

What little I see of Rang-du-Fliers confirms my first appraisal. Low lying houses spread across a flat landscape, the sickly green cross of a pharmacy, a few small shops hunkered down behind their textured cement façades, a municipal statue in the centre of an ugly roundabout. Taken as a whole it presents the inward turned face of a dreary bourgeois complicity, a place were lives are lived far from anything and yet not rural enough to be picturesque or even provincial. Of course, it might be nice in the summer. Also, it confirms that I’d never have made it on foot. The route twists and turns more than I recall seeing on the map. Then a long straight stretch under grey skies buffeted by that ferocious wind. Eventually, I’m dropped off outside a building I take to be a cinema, near the centre of the town.

Reluctant to disembark, I turn on my heel at the last moment, grab hold the door and try to cage directions from the driver. I’m clinging onto the final step while others look impatiently past me. ‘The hospital is near here?’ I ask in panicked French. ‘What direction? Does he know how far?’ An older man with a brown jacket and a stubbly beard peppered with white who overhears my failed attempt or is simply impatient for me to get out of his way, shakes his head. Forces me off the step with little motions of his hands rather than physically pushing me. Once we are both down, he takes my arm by the elbow, gives me directions to the hospital in English, pointing, half-propelling me down the pavement. But which one? The wrong one, it turns out. The realisation sets in just as I’m priding myself on having followed the man’s directions, a blond haired woman looking at me with a confused smile over the stack of paperwork I’ve handed her.

I’m in a hospital, but the not the right one. The woman behind the main reception desk doesn’t speak English, and I not enough French, but she shows me the name printed on the hospital doors and the one on my letter and they are clearly not the same. Another woman gives me vague directions which lead me out into a different parking lot than the one I came in. I go out, hesitate, return partway, narrowly avoiding being run over by an ambulance. As I am about to ask the ambulance men, they step out of the vehicle throwing open the back doors in order to help down a patient in a wheelchair. A nurse on a smoking break notices at my plight. ‘Over there,’ she says, grinding out her cigarette. ‘Down by the sea, turn right but I don’t think you can reach it by this road.’

She is correct as I find myself cut off from my destination first by houses, then an empty lot surrounded by a high chain-link fence. Emphatic notices of no entry are posted in French, the interior swallowed up by a mountain of sand and building rubble. There is sand everywhere. Blown onto the street, piled up in doorways like welcome mats, in the air, and soon in my beard. Dunes have filled in what looks to be a whole city block, stop my passage as I try to reach the water.

Finally, I gain access to the road which runs parallel to the front of the hospital. Walking up the sloping entrance, under a arch, and only five minutes late into my appointment I arrive, though I am damp with sweat and speckled with sand as I shake hands with the administrator and the interpreter who have been assigned to my case. ‘I am patient X,’ I tell them gravely but neither understand the joke.

Later, it will be difficult to remember anything the surgeon said. It is not a question of the language barrier. He sees me promptly while the interpreter and the administrator lean against the doorframe half-in and half-out of both our space and our conversation, taking notes. There are screws involved. ‘If I don’t like the look of the biceps, I cut it as well,’ he tells me. We have some difficulty coming to terms over the pronunciation of certain words. We repeat things back and forth until we are both satisfied we’re saying the same one. My failure to process details is due to my horror at what they reveal.

Afterwards, there is a long wait for the anaesthesiologist. I am led to a small room outside his office, one of several cells which open up off a central chamber that doesn’t seem to serve any purpose other than as a repository of oxygen bottles and empty trollies. There is an elderly lady seated beside her husband, a tall craggy faced man who holds a pair of crutches in one hand and has his left leg in a flexible orthopaedic brace. He is too big for the chair and looks uncomfortably folded, an accordion shoved into a narrow cubby hole.

She speaks loudly for the entire time under a sign asking patients not to use their mobile phones. Another couple, talk quietly amongst themselves. There’s a small child—the couple’s daughter—and she is singing a song to her infant brother in his pram. I can’t understand a word of it which confirms my suspicion that my command of French is sub-infantile. Attempts to read my book are interrupted by the interpreter who tells me cheerfully and repeatedly that he does not think I will miss the last train home. He really does not think so.

In the end, I am fast-tracked, to all our bewilderment but the discussion is perfunctory and brief and something of a let down at the end of so much tedious waiting. The doctor checks off the list, explains the requirements and procedures. Risks. Dangers. Threat of death. Seems as bored by it as I am. Finally, we shake hands and I am released once more into the sandy forecourt of the hospital. There, leaning against the main doors, the interpreter and the administrator grin and wave me goodbye. I nod, and head down the hill the same way I have come. I have more paperwork now in my satchel, a vague sense of what to expect, and a great weariness weighing both down.

I am tired and thirsty and so worried about going the wrong way that I do. Which should be difficult as there is only the Atlantic in front of the hospital, girded by a long stretch of sand which even now is whipped into hissing particles by the wind. But the streets around the hospital aren’t easy to navigate in my tired state. I haven’t a map or a mobile phone. Two years ago I’m standing on a beach on Corsica where I drop my smartphone into the surf, trying to pry off the translucent tentacle of a Pelagia noctiluca which has curled delicately around my wrist. I choose not to replace the phone after it dies of the rust and salt crystals which form inside it. The scars from the jellyfish have only recently faded.

Not for the first time in those intervening years, I wonder if I’m being foolish. Specifically, foolish about not having a mobile phone. I am foolish in many things. Wonder if I’m not growing like Powys, increasingly eclectic and disdainful of modernity. Sunk in my own ‘mythology.’ Not entirely or at all a bad thing, in the balance of things. I am happy in my wilful isolation. A phone would have been useful today, but I push that thought away with repugnance. Though I wish I had the foresight to have had someone print me a map.

At the bottom of the hill I reorientate myself. Not easy to do I find, in a town where so many streets are named after doctors. I’ve never seen anything like it. After I return, I discover that the town owes its peculiar layout to its 19th century boom as a centre for the treatment of tuberculosis. Numerous foundations and clinics spring up like weeds after the Maritime Hospital is opened by the Empress Eugénie with a wave of her hand. Paris is only three hours away by train, and it draws those seeking a sea cure to its sandy plage. The same grains or their descendants are now carried on the air making my own breathing problematic.

It isn’t consumption that draws patients these days. As I stand on the corner getting my breath back I’m passed by four young men, moving at an impressive pace, limbs hung heavy with muscle and necks like bullocks, all of them on crutches with elaborate braces or space-age casts covering a leg. They might be members of a specialised rugby team, out for training, if they weren’t as I suspect, patients who have met under ill-crossed stars in a ward of the physical therapy wing.

All I hope for is that I’m close to the cinema. Is it even a cinema? Of that I’m not sure. Nothing looks familiar. The evening approaches on dragging feet. This is a part of town I did not pass through on my way to either hospital. There are signs pointing to other hospitals but I do not fall for their lure. All the while I feel as if I’m being ground down by tiny crystals which sting both cheeks. Exhausted, low on morale and bodily moisture, I do the next best thing to finding my way and find a bar.

After the first sip of beer, I decide I like drinking in French bars in some crummy out of season coastal town. A place not full of anybody but incurious locals. Not full of anybody at the moment, except for myself and the patron, with grit in the beer from the wind that blows all over town. In fairness, it may well be from my beard. Each time I move, sand falls out of the creases of my clothes. I’m not carrying a phone or a laptop, but from my satchel I pull a notepad and a pencil. As I do, I mean to write down some chapters for the novel that I’m writing. It’s an apocalyptic tale in which the protagonist embarks from London to Paris, then is forced to flee into the deep countryside of the rural département of the Périgord, as plague and death suck the marrow of civilisation.

I’m writing this for the future, I write down then erase. I’m writing this for the survivors, I try next but it’s no good either. I’m writing this for you, I tell her, breaking away from my narrative, away from the page entirely. This page, too. Who else could it be for? What else is on my mind anymore, as plague and the green scent of the river Dordogne disappear. But I end up erasing that as well. Running my finger over the paper I can feel invisible grains of sand dragging at the whorls of flesh, rubber, and discarded graphite, reminding me that time is running out for me.

I don’t end up ordering a coffee or the Pernod I’ve been dreaming about. A sudden sadness finds me. It builds into something close to panic. A heartsickness for home and those near it. My return ticket on the ferry is open-ended but after nine o’ clock they stop allowing foot-passengers. When the next bus leaves the cinema for the Gare de Rang-du-Fliers, I haven’t the faintest idea. I get to my feet, pay for my beer, irritating the patron with my confused yet hurried counting of coins before rushing out the door.

Back on the street, in the wind, with fresh sand in my eyes, I choose an avenue that feels right and is entirely wrong. Likely because the town is small, eventually the street brings me out on the other side of the cinema. It helps that the building is a modernist metal cube with laminations or scales or perhaps even writing on its surface. It can’t be missed once found. A pale metallic glow clings to its roof as the sun sets. Later, as I write this, I try to find it on the online map that I should have printed out, and fail. Did I really see it at all, I wonder.

Was it a cinema? You might be frustrated by now, but so am I as I write this, thinking of you. As I was then, only more tired. What I do know beyond dispute is that I thought so at the time. I ask two separate shopkeepers to point me in the right direction. ‘Le cinéma? Je ne sais pas…’ is the identical response, followed by blank faces as I try to rephrase the question. The second stop is at one those regional gift shops you always find in a French town, selling over-priced cassoulet in fancy glass jars, truffles, Normandy cidre, vin biologique.

The prices are strictly upmarket and I am unsure if there will be a bus at this hour. Or if I’ll find the cinema, provided it exists. I may yet have to test my theory about walking. I shake my head, bid the shopkeeper au revoir. Then turning a corner, there it is. An ugly metal cube standing oblique in the light. Happy but too tired to go back to the shop, I wait in front of this object that will later frustrate me upon my return. Right now, things are simple: I’ve looked over the schedule, just a scrap of paper tied to a post. The only thing I’m certain of is that nothing is meant to arrive or depart at this hour.

There is a point where the ability to make decisions breaks down. Like a tangible thing, you hear it snap. Right or wrong, good or bad, who knows? You can feel it go. If I ate something it might help but I’m unwilling to do so. That’s a decision. A whole string of cascading choices branch off that one. What, where, how, etc.. The words I’d have to remember to order or to pay. Back in front of the cinema parking lot, if it’s a cinema, I’m at a loss. As I’m standing there a bus pulls smartly up, full of schoolchildren, and opens its door. A couple of teenagers and a pair of old ladies who have been waiting the whole time, oblivious of my plight, as I have been to them, get on.

This is not the bus I’m hoping for, nor one I recognise from the timetable. But the driver assures me it stops at the Gare du Rang-du-Fliers. I don’t quite believe her but I get on. Blind chance worked getting here, it may work getting me home. I am content to squeeze my way past the disdainful children. The girl I sit beside does not look at me, only turns up the music on her phone. No doubt she is as embarrassed as I might be were I not euphoric with my victory over inertia. Fortune has plucked me from the sinking wreck. Or else you may attribute it, as I do, to traveling in a country with plentiful public transport, even in a backwater such as this.

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.

Night and Calais pt. I, pt. II