“The night had come home.” – Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Journey to the End of the Night
Everything functions now in reverse, except the rain which falls in the same manner as it did before. The first drops splatter against the windshield as the bus slides through the suburbs of Rang-du-Fliers. The backside of the suburbs is no more lovely than the flank.
Once on the train, I am content again. Old fears move off or are left behind on the platform. There’s an urge to keep going. To have an adventure. It builds. I am struck by a kind of train fever. The mind flies as the carriage moves, along possibilities, branch lines. What Paris is like right now. No doubt just as cold if less windy, but there are bars and cafes and galleries and bookshops if the weather shuts us out of the parks.
Another world of what-might-have been. I could change trains at Boulogne Ville and be in Paris before dinner is served. Call you up and tell you to take the first Eurostar. Hurry. Before I lose my nerve. Despite how tired I am or perhaps because of it, it seems possible sitting here, to discard this hand and pick up a new one, freshly dealt. Where does fantasy leave off and true harm to self and others begin? My mind overflows. I’m so distracted that I fail to take out my book. I leave England to Wolf Solent.
It is not long before I am in Calais. Train windows streaked with moisture, clock tower aglow against the black and the grey clouds parked over the city. Boulogne is a ghost forty minutes behind me. Hope and courage die there as well. If there is a DANGER DE MORT sign on this platform, I don’t see it. At least there is an end to the sand, the rain also, though no ending is perfect. We carry with us detritus from all our journeys. Laid down in nacreous layers over the irritation of living. We go on going on. Until we don’t anymore. Grains of sand caught in the treads of my brogues grate as I climb the stairs to the station.
There is a sense of delirium building. A faintness that grips my limbs. A cold heat kindled which doesn’t warm. My body is burning oxygen but not much else. But I’m lighter if I’m anything, up, up! and I take the stairs two at a time fuelled by a single beer not a crumb of bread nor a drop of water having passed my lips. Then I am out the door past the crowd, fewer waiting at this hour, the pavements wet and shining in the lights of the taxi rank. Reel down the side of the station until I find the stop where the bus has let me out this morning. Next to it hangs a urinous reek. Reminding me there is nothing in my bladder to relieve. Also the schedule. I have missed the last shuttle of the night.
My nerves feel strung taunt as I walk away. Prompting me to worry I’m swinging my arms too quickly, which in turn makes them feel awkward. The sensation or the thought, I can’t decide which comes first, alienates them at the ends of their sockets. My hands buzz reminding me of the cabinet behind the fence at the station and I think about nerves and how they look without a body.
I’m transported. Back to a room where six anatomical tables from 17th century Padua hang on the walls. The ghostly nervous system appears to be in the process of regenerating its body, varnish discoloured by age into smoky quartz. Or else something new is on the edge of stepping out. With that memory, the taste of sugar and Champagne flood my lips, musk in my nostrils, the surge of blood making my heart jump. That traitorous organ stitching me up. As it always does.
There’s a corner Carrefour, and I’m tempted to visit it. Slam the door on this useless melancholy brought on by fatigue and dehydration. Buy wine, beer, cheese, bread. The wind is sharp however, and I’m staring at the wrong end of a walk to the port, through darkness and along fences to the end of Calais if not the night. I’ve got to live with my memories and get my body to the boat, unencumbered.
I turn down a side street which runs beside the canal. But only get as far as the next corner. Blue rotating lights are painting the walls of the buildings. Their motion makes me feel dizzy. There is a small group of figures standing on the grass next to a bench, talking with a trio of police officers. More officers are grouped farther down the street. Two young women are standing on my side of the tableau. One of them looks at me as I come up beside her. She has short hair and a pierced nose, too thin a coat and too short a dress for the weather, and heavy black boots. Her friend has blue hair and more sensible attire.
‘Vous ne pouvez pas passer à travers.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I say, ‘Je ne parle pas français…’
‘You can’t get through, mister,’ says the blue-haired girl in accented English.
But she doesn’t sound French. If I had to guess I’d say she was Dutch or German. Danish perhaps. She is European. In her twenties. She is Europe, as far as I’m concerned, as I’ve always expected her to be. Though I’m a decade or two behind in my mental imagery. I can see her living in student squalor in Aarhus, working in design or some other creative media, or hanging out at student coffee shops with a boyfriend or a girlfriend, perhaps both, from Berlin. She reads well, in four languages, and has an older brother who dropped out of school early to start his own business. ‘The road is closed,’ she tells me, like a tap on the chin. There has been a fight and someone has fallen in the canal, she explains, or else there’s a body. I can’t be sure, then or now, what exactly she says or if I hear her correctly. I’m blushing for some reason though I doubt with all of us strobed by the light, anyone notices. Maybe her hair isn’t even blue, but silver.
I’d like to buy her a drink, but to what end? I’m just tired. The way she says mister makes me feel my age as if it was a diving belt. In my suit the colour of a London sky in November, black brogues, grey beard, grey coat, I feel a monochromatic intrusion into a colourful drama. Though for all I know, I am blue too, with reflected light. I nod, I don’t even thank them properly but turn, and walk away. Somehow I keep getting farther from my goal. All earlier blessings from the gods of transport have sunk with the sun.
People, and when I say people I mean writers, use the term ‘roaring darkness’ to describe a stormy night when they could just call it that but in this case it feels as true a use of that overblown phrase as you could hope to find. The wind is howling if not roaring, and the darkness feels thicker now, a tangible presence independent of a mere lack light here on the edge of town. Maybe it is the gloomy thought of walking all that distance only to encounter the fences I’ve seen earlier. My resolve turns to water, though my throat is parched.
At that moment, a taxicab drives round the corner heading to the station with no one but the operator inside. I don’t know if it is legal to flag it down or if it will stop, but I wave and it does. ‘Bonsoir, monsieur. Combien, s’il vous plaît… How much to go to the ferry terminal?’ I ask, giving up any pretence that I speak French. ‘Thirteen euros,’ he says. It seems steep, but if I walk now I am sure I will arrive too late if at all. I have just enough, I think, and open the door and get in. ‘Please hurry,’ I say and the driver turns the vehicle on to the street by the Carrefour with grim determination.
Outside the cab is blackness. Parts of the landscape feel as if they have nothing in them but a void. Blocks of dark buildings with distant lit habitations cut off by their presence. Flashes of headlights, but few other cars traveling in our direction. Only the fences brightly illuminated when we reach them, running parallel to their edge, past pools of yellow light in which police vans are still parked though I can’t see if anyone is inside them. There is that feeling again, of preparations made for a doomsday like the one I’m writing about. But then, for me, the apocalypse is overdue.
At eleven I know the world is going to end. Adults push the knowledge away with jokes and stupid movies and adverts for Apple computers. Plus ça change. It is the eighties and I’m enrolled at a waspish private school so everyone feels comfortable talking freely about what you’re supposed to do when you grow up, the value of citizenship, how to get to the Olympics or apply for an ivy league college or the brand of imported car you’ll drive, when they’re not talking about how to love Jesus and avoid taxes. For all their Sunday School Republicanism, they’ve forgotten Revelations. The truth is any survivors of what’s coming will be fighting mutants in the BART tunnels, rather than Satan. Or peeling the skin off their neighbours to hang on the walls as trophies. Unlike others in my year, I’m serious about preparing.
I only share my certainty about the end with a single co-conspirator who lives out past the city dump, in a geodesic dome in the shadow of Wolf Mountain. He’s not a talker and he’s safe. In the dusty scrub behind his futuristic house, we learn to shoot bows. Built traps. Listen for rattlesnakes as we turn over rocks, sift the rust red soil for stone arrowheads to add to his collection. Work our steel ones and their broken shafts free of the manzanita, its bark peeling under our fingers in long curls to reveal even smoother virgin wood which we rub with our hands while fantasising about the legs of our female classmates whom we lust after, fiercely, dumbly, but with very little idea how we will conspire to touch.
When we’ve done enough or can’t take the heat any longer, we stumble back into his house with its once-cream shag carpet now permanently stained the colour of an elderly Irish Setter. Everything out here takes on a layer of red dust. The screens can’t keep it out and the solar panels on the dome’s roof never produce more electricity than it takes to warm a cup of water so there’s no air-conditioning. Sun-struck and panting with excitement, we drink hippy colas with a weird aftertaste, roll up characters for D&D games we never initiate, fall asleep, sometimes inside on the floor of his room, sometimes on the wooden deck out back in sleeping bags, hands and fingers exploring each other covertly, smoothness on smoothness, as slick and sticky as manzanita.
At home, I hide caches of tinned goods, wire, matches, steak knives and glass two litre wine bottles full of spring water in our basement. I know where the weapons are kept and have ready access. The M1 rifle, which is fascinating and easy to use lying on a rest, the wood smooth and the perforated barrel smelling of gun oil. Which always hits what you aim for and has the added allure of an attachment for a vicious looking bayonet. The Mossberg shotgun, which is terrifying both in its loudness and the pain it delivers. The first time I fire it, my father beside me telling me to tighten my grip goddamnit and then I’m on my back, ears ringing, chest and collarbone feeling like I’ve been swatted by a giant. I wear the bruise for a month. My father’s revolver with the long jacketed bullets with which he kills rattlesnakes but is always deeply, transgressively sorry afterwards about the brute necessity of it. The silver automatic with pearl inserts in the handle that we carry with us illegally through all our travels in Mexico.
We are ready for an end that never arrives or if it does, and now sitting in a taxicab weaving through Calais more than thirty-five years later, I fear it might have, only not in the manner I was expecting. Of course, there were branches. Futures I saw, forks glanced at an impossible distance like dry lightning exploding over the summit. When I’m not waiting for white contrails to x out the blue of the California sky, I’m caught in the coils of a future that feels less chosen by me than one which has arrived artfully packaged. In it I’m an orthopaedic surgeon living in Rio, putting back together the shattered joints of athletic young men and women. My Brazilian wife and I sit on our balcony at night and look out over the Atlantic.
This at least is the future I tell others about, let them get in on the ground floor. It goes over well enough, playing as it does to my parents’ hope for me to go to med school. My classmates, my rivals in the pool and out of it, even my teachers call me doctor half jokingly, and watch me work through Grey’s Anatomy on my lunch periods. Which is a cruel thing for adults who haven’t forgotten what children are like to their peers, to do. Still, this one is safer. They might hate me more but at least they understand it. It’s aspirational enough to fit the time and place. The other world which I share with those fumbles in the dark, would just confuse. Invite ridicule of a different sort. Only one among them is privy my dreams of mushroom clouds and building a raft to reach radiation-free Australia and he knows how to keep a secret as skilfully as he knows how to spot a real arrowhead from a triangular piece of rock.
There is of course another version of myself, that I don’t share even with him. An old man picking through what the waves leave on the shore. A ridiculous lonely beachcomber whom the children despise but are frightened of though they’ll not admit it even to each other just fling rocks and insults from a safe distance. A figure that is essentially the same as these other incarnations, in the key respect that he is happy. I can see myself stooped and bearded, someplace warm, I’ll grant. Even the end of the world in the most horrific way. I can imagine all these things, and probably others that I have forgotten, but nowhere in all these possibilities do I imagine myself unhappy.
Am I happy now? If so, it’s an uneasy happiness, shifting and softening then hardening underneath me. Falling towards happiness can be as terminal as falling away from it. Very often I feel as if I am nothing these days, not even human. As mineralised and cut off from others as the Boulevard Noir. No habitation worth living in is built inside me. Just outlet malls and cheap furniture shops. A culvert. A flyover. A lane leading someplace else at either end, to happier or factious lives but full of the living at least. There are days where there is nothing here it feels, but a stolen vehicle set on fire and burnt down to the frame.
The lights of the port rouse me from my depressive spiral. There is just enough time to get there before check-in ends. At least on this side, provided you get past the fences and have the right credentials, the right ticket, the right skin, there is very little fuss made about getting on a ferry. I’m so relived when I see the terminal building that I do the American thing of babbling to the driver. Does he mind the fences? Are things harder or better for him now? Are the attempts to stow away on the lorries and trains and even, my God can you imagine! To walk across on foot through the tunnel, making people feel uneasy in Calais? I trail off into the hard-edged silence which has formed in the cab.
He says nothing, and I can see the expression on the driver’s face in the mirror, already unfriendly, sour further. Not a word passes between us after that. When he pulls up, he takes my money in hand and turns his face from me to stare at the wheel, gripping it tightly until I’m out of his car. Then he drives off and I push through the rotating doors into the bright emptiness of the terminal.
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.
Image: E.M. Edwards