“These shapes exaggerated out of all measure or distorted as if seen refracted through water” – Joris-Karl Huysmans, À rebours
When luck turns it runs the other way. There is a lady with a clipboard standing on the wrong side of the check-in desk. She looks at me briefly as I present my ticket. It is not reassuring.
‘Am I in time,’ I ask but this is meant as a statement not a question. The answer is yes according to the clock and the regulations. The ferry I’m hoping to catch is still docked, with sufficient time before it departs.
’No, I’m sorry. There is a problem with the bus.’
‘A problem with the bus. The ferry is delayed but there is also a problem with the bus. You can’t board. It’s too late. You will have to wait for the next one.’
She points to the benches along the wall. There are four people sitting there, or three, and one stretched out perhaps asleep. This is not a good sign, I understand that at a glance.
‘The next bus? I don’t mind waiting, or walking.’
She looks at me for a moment, without reply. Then shakes her head, a small frown creeping in from the corners of her mouth. It comes to her gradually not all at once. ‘No, the next ferry. There is an issue with the bus at present. We can’t call it back in time before the ferry has to close its doors. You can not board without taking the bus. It is not safe to walk.’
This is frustrating. I’m running on the remains of adrenaline that my body can no longer generate. The last thing I want, other than being stuck in Calais for the night, is to be stuck in the terminal waiting for the next chance to escape. All that hurry to get here, and now I’ve got to wait.
‘The eight thirty-five ferry, when does it board.’ I am resigned. It is not that long after all. Wolf Solent awaits and the next crossing is only about forty-five minutes away. They will let us on sooner than that.
The woman’s frown appears again. She shakes her head, looks at her list. Then casually, as if I should know and not care, she says, ‘We have had several delays. The next departure has been rescheduled to freight only. No foot passengers, I’m afraid.’
‘What do you mean, no foot passengers?’ I know what she means. I know exactly, but I’m going to make her explain because it is the only power I have right now over the situation.
‘The previous ship and this one, are both delayed,’ she says. Her voice sounds tired not hurt. Which makes me feel like a heel for trying to upset her. I hate pettiness, especially in myself. She tells me more but I’m not listening, as she goes on about how there’s been a problem, an issue, that this and that have gone wrong. Something is cancelled, something else is late, and the ship leaving in forty minutes from now isn’t taking any passengers, only cargo. That means I’m down to the final ferry of the night that theoretically, allows foot passengers on. But what if it doesn’t? That last thought is a cold dash of water and returns me to the conversation, albeit late. She’s turning away.
‘The nine forty-five then?’
She checks her list.
‘Yes. We will have the problem with the bus fixed. Wait here,’ she gestures again to the same benches with the same people on them, ‘We will come find you and take you to the ferry. Though there may be a delay.’ I groan but the fight has gone from me and we both know it. She leaves me there, pushes through the rotating doors and out into the wind. I make my way to the benches.
The last ferry of the night for foot passengers is an unglamorous demimonde. Waiting for it in the drafty terminal building is spending time in a bathhouse on the outskirts of it. But I’m not taking another taxicab back to the ville. Or walking, though there may be time, in the hope of finding someplace better. I’ve seen what is out there, and there’s nothing. Just fences. I’m not eating or drinking anything either, because the restaurant I discover, after climbing four flights of stairs, is closed. Only cleaning staff, and the smell of old food and burnt coffee, still haunt the buffet.
There’s a vending machine downstairs but I decide I’ll expire before I use it.
A woman who has been lying down on the bench, gets up. She goes and sits, I’m not sure why, beside a wiry grey-haired man of little stature, who is sitting on the stone lip next to the vending machine, just a few inches off the cold floor. He has a couple of plastic bags at his feet. The other man, wearing a puffy jacket and brilliantly white trainers, slides over giving me ample room. I sit there beside him. He taps open his phone and begins talking quietly in Farsi. And I listen. Not to the man on the phone, but to the others by the wall who are speaking English.
Before I can solve the puzzle of their relationship or even the topic of their conversation, two young men come into the terminal. Dressed in sports clothing, with no jackets or bags, they make a slow circuit of the room, looking at the departure board several times but not approaching the ticket window, before finally coming to a stop near the man who is drinking and talking with the woman.
They have since gotten up and sat down on the bench she had vacated earlier so are closer to me now and I can hear them better. The man drinks, and as he drinks he laughs and he seems to know the lady but I don’t get the sense that they are in anyway traveling together. The man opens another can of lager. She waves it away. He looks up.
The young men, boys really, stand in front of him. ‘Hello,’ says the man to the taller of the two. ‘You want to have a seat? You want something to drink? We’re just having a drink and a conversation here.’
‘No thank you,’ says the boy but he keeps his position. ‘Are you from Ireland?’ he asks.
‘Yes,’ says the man, ‘But she ain’t,’ he says and laughs. ‘I don’t know where she’s from, do I?’ The woman says nothing and turns her head away from the man.
Now the tall boy is asking about how much it costs to get a ferry to Dublin. ‘I’m from Dublin!’ says the drinker. He sounds it.
‘You’re also a drunk,’ says the lady, and she sounds angry about it.
A second group enters. Conversation halts as we watch them push through the door. The men’s clothing is much the same as that of the first two boys so I’m at a loss to say why it registers as sharper. But it does. The fabric perhaps not as cheap and the logos smaller.
Both of the men are about the same age as the first two but heavier of build, with muscular necks, hair cropped close to their skulls, large hands at their sides sporting shiny watches and thick fingers. There are two girls trailing after them wearing heels and micro-dresses showing not only calves, legs, thighs but the bottom silky quarter-moons of their derrières. Like the first two, the men look and point at the board, speaking what sounds like Russian.
The two unaccompanied men who came in first, are studiously not looking, looking anywhere except there, but listening. They’ve gone very still and make me think of deer trying not to draw attention, unsure if they should run. The drunk from Dublin stares at the girls with an open mouth until the woman says something, and then hits him on one arm.
‘Ow,’ he says. ‘That fucking hurt,’ But he laughs and she moves farther away from him on the bench but doesn’t get up.
‘Don’t be like that,’ he says.
The four latecomers go to the ticket window and talk to someone there. Then they step back to their original position and one of the men pulls out a white smartphone and talks into it. In a few minutes, perhaps as little as five perhaps as long as ten, we see the headlights of a sedan pull up in front of the building. The two men and the two young women who show us more of their taunt arses as they exit behind the men, step through the door and get in.
There is a wolf-whistle from the Dubliner. The young man sees it as a chance to talk to him again, asking about how much it costs, does he think it is very expensive to get there?
‘To go where?’
‘Jaysus, you can’t get to Dublin from France. Not from here.’
‘Where does this go, London?’
‘London? No! Dover. The ferries only go to Dover, why are you trying to get to Dublin anyway? What’s in Dublin?’
The woman cuts him off, and the two argue a little about where else ferries go. They can’t make their minds up about it. They speculate on possible destinations, ask the boy a few more questions, but then run out of ideas.
‘OK, OK, maybe from Dunkirk you can get somewhere north but Dublin? I don’t think so, anyway,’ says the man. ‘But you could get a train or a bus from London and go to Liverpool. That’s where you want. Yeah? Liverpool. Then you can get a ferry.’
‘Eventually, yeah. To Dublin.’
‘Where are you from,’ asks the woman silencing the man for a moment. ‘Why are you going to Dublin, love?’ Her voice is soft now, absent from it the spiky anger evident when she speaks to the man beside her.
‘From Romania. I’m from Romania,’ the young man says. His friend doesn’t say anything, he’s just waiting, calmly and patiently, his eyes flick to the entrance and back again to us. He takes out his phone but I think he only pretends to look at it. ‘Well, from Chișinău.’
‘Is that a place in Romania?’ the drunk man asks, forgetting he’s been told to stop talking by the lady who clamps her jaw shut but doesn’t interrupt him. ‘Is that the capital or something?’
‘No, well, no. But I have a Romanian passport.’
‘That’s in EU then, is it?’
‘Well, then that’s no problem!’
‘How much does it cost?’
‘A ferry ticket? Well, it depends.’ He scratches his face a little. ‘Why do you want to leave Romania anyway? What are you doing here?’
‘Yes, why France?’ asks the woman.
The boy from Chișinău turns to the woman, ‘I like France,’ he says. ‘There’s nothing for me at home. No parents. No family.’
‘No family? Are you working here?’ she asks him. She looks worried for him. He is very thin.
‘No. I’m here for fun. To party. I’m on, what do you call it, holiday. But I know someone in Dublin. He’ll give me a job. I hope.’
‘Why France?’ she says and starts to say something else but starts coughing.
The boy waits for her to stop. ‘I like French girls,’ he says. ‘I like them, but my French isn’t good. It is easier to talk to them in English but they don’t like that,’ he admits and smiles. ‘But now I’ve spent all my money. I can’t stay in France. So I need to get to Dublin.’
‘Oooh, he likes to party,’ says the man and laughs. ‘Oooh, he likes French girls!’
He winks and nods and kisses the air which looks grotesque but this time the woman shows him a thin smile. ‘Have a drink!’ he says to the boy from Chișinău and offers him a look inside one the two bags.
‘What is it?’
‘Fosters? Lager. It’s lager! You know. You do know lager?’ says the man and opens a tin himself with a hiss of foam and then replaces the bag under his feet before the boy can take one. ‘Not very good lager but it’s all the same if you drink enough of it.’ He laughs and then starts to cough.
‘Don’t you prefer Guinness?’ The boys asks. He sounds shy again. His friend moves his gaze from his phone to the door and back again. Very calm, very detached is this friend who doesn’t seem to mind that we’ve all forgotten him.
‘Oh sure. Guinness is Guinness, lager is lager,’ says the man. ‘Of course I prefer Guinness! Though, if I have a Guinness, I’ve got to have another. Then another. Then a whiskey. Then another whiskey. Same with lager, but it’s cheaper.’
‘That’s why you’re a drunk,’ says the woman and she sounds angry. She is about to say more but then she’s doubled over on the bench coughing twice as hard and for twice as long as before and the whole terminal fills with the noise of it. She sounds terrible. She sounds like someone who has slept in wet clothes in a park. Like a lung might fall out, glistening on the tiles. Or else, she just has a cold. Either way, it’s a bad cough and the boy and the drunk both fall silent until she stops.
‘That’s true, true enough,’ says the man more kindly and long after she’s said it. He smiles. He sings a little tune, coughs a few times himself, then empties his tin. ‘Dublin’s a great city, though. If you like Guinness. But how much money have you got?’
‘Thirty euros? Christ, you can’t get to Dublin for thirty euros. Not Liverpool either.’
‘Shhh. Is that all you have?’ asks the woman. She is concerned.
‘What about a bus?’ the boy asks.
‘There are buses, but they cost. Cost a lot. You know, not like here,’ says the man. The woman nods. Though I know you can find cheap seats but not by showing up on a cold rainy night at Victoria Station. If he gets that far. He’s not even on the boat yet. But then neither am I. ‘They’re not cheap. I don’t know, fifty quid, seventy quid. Trains are expensive too. Hundred pounds or more.’
‘Bus? Fifty quid – that’s, what sixty, seventy euros?’ he looks to the woman for confirmation, and she nods, chews her fingers.
‘Is that all you have?’ she asks again, ‘Thirty euros?’ so quietly that I’m not sure the boy or the man hear her as both are talking again. It goes back and forth this way for a while. Eventually the boy admits he’s hoping to get a ride with someone bringing their car onto the ferry, who already has a ticket. He’s hoping to keep the thirty euros for when he gets to England. He’s hoping he’ll have some of it left when gets to Dublin.
‘That’s a good idea,’ confirms the man. ‘Save some money.’ But he shakes his head and looks at the woman.
They advise him he to find a driver before they start letting cars on. Then the boy talks to his friend for a while and afterwards I’ve lost track of where they’ve wandered. Have they left the terminal or gone somewhere else in the building? I’ve turned from listening to reading without noticing when either. It’s a long wait, and it doesn’t feel any shorter.
Eventually, I look up. It is getting close to the time of departure and I pack my things. Get my coat on. No sign of the lady or the bus yet so I walk to the toilet. Inside, I splash some water on my face which despite the chill of the building, feels hot to the touch. I drink a little and look at my grey reflection, and drink a little more. I look like a blurry ghost of myself. It only takes a few minutes in all, but as a result I nearly miss the boat.
When I come back into the terminal, it is empty. I curse, out loud, angrily. Furious. Rush to the revolving door. Coming back inside is the woman from earlier wearing a too-large parka now and clutching a radio. ‘Oh good,’ she says. ‘The bus will take you to the ferry. We thought you had left.’
Everyone is there. The drunk, the woman, the boy, and myself. The man who was talking on the phone earlier in Farsi, is not on the bus. Neither is the boy’s friend or the Russians, though they might have a car. ‘He’s going back to Romania,’ the boy tells us when we ask where his friend is. ‘He has family. I’m going on. To Liverpool. Then Dublin.’ He can’t be argued out of it.
There is the lady and the driver and another employee who has gotten on board wearing his P&O uniform. The three of them are at the front of the bus. We drive off, headed for the last ferry to Dover. On the ride to the boat, everyone gets involved in trying to help out the boy from Chișinău with suggestions and advice. The staff all seem to know the man from Dublin. They also advise the boy. I don’t know where he’s gotten his ticket from but he must have one.
In sight of our ferry, the bus stops. We’re held waiting for the stairs to be made ready or the doors to be opened. Everyone is still discussing the best way to get to Liverpool on thirty euros. The boy is enjoying the attention, the friendliness. I’d be embarrassed myself but then I doubt I’d have his courage. On another level, our concern is sinking in, I think. He is looking more worried. Paler as we sit there listening to the wind whistle and rock the bus as we wait. We all wish him well. No one has come out and said how slim his chances are but no one has lied about it either.
The ex-Dubliner tries to cheer him up with a song but falters halfway through, wracked by coughing, falls embarrassingly silent.
‘Can I get out here,’ asks the drunk. He’s slurring his words now. Sounding frustrated. I don’t know if its the delay or our failure to save the boy from Chișinău. ‘I fucking need a smoke and a slash, you know.’
The woman from the ferry company looks him over. She handles him well, doesn’t seem to mind his singing, his outburst or his swearing. ‘Remember what happened last time,’ she chides him gently, ‘You got out, and then immediately changed your mind and wanted back in. It’s cold out there, and there’s nothing to block the wind.’
‘Yeah, yeah,’ he says, relenting, a cigarette still in his hand his eyes made sadder by the kindness or the lost opportunity, ‘You’re right, you’re right, always looking out for me.’ The choice is made moot because just then the radio gives us the go-ahead.
Once more, I sprint past the others. Up the stairs and hand over my boarding pass to the crewman waiting at the door, the wind flattening his uniform. I step on, exhausted with France, un-ironically pleased to be welcomed inside the Spirit of Britain.