A thoroughly uplifting experience (Part 1)
by Simon Newman
You can do it, I told myself. You always used to.
Yes, but that was thirty years ago. Make that forty. Romford High Street as I recall, about an hour after closing time. Motorbike having broken down, I stood by the roadside giving the time-honoured signal for a lift and before not too long an old man wheezed to a halt. Make that a van. I gratefully jumped in out of the rain, vaguely noticing a slight rushing-of-air sound which I took for the sliding door I’d just closed. Wrong. Very wrong.
The snarling, salivating Pit-Bull-from-Hell coming up from behind me was violently yanked to a halt by a chain secured to the floor, just milliseconds away from snacking on my left ear. The driver helpfully informed me that the trick was not to let him know I was afraid. Of the dog, that is, not of him, the driver, although frankly neither were exactly the kind you’d invite home for tea and Hobnobs.
Fast-forward to 2011 but this time it’s Perpignan in broad daylight. How difficult could it be? It all started with a one Euro bus ride into the city for a photography trip. No need for the car I mused, it would just be a burden. By late afternoon, having pounded the pavements all day, I was completely bushed but arrived in good time back at the Auchan bus-stop (where I noted some new road works) for the return ride. Looking forward to putting my feet up and letting the Conseil Général take the strain, I peered incredulously at the hand-written sign hastily taped over the timetable – À cause de travaux, arrêt supprimé. Just like that. Bloody suppriméd.
Two hours before the next bus, on top of which I’d have to walk 3 kilometres in the wrong direction back to the station – and I was already running on empty.
Like all notices bearing bad news, you read it again and again because you just can’t believe it. But try as I might to will it otherwise, the arrêt remained resolutely suppriméd. I was just considering my options when I was joined by two large, heavily-veiled ladies who started waving their arms, jabbing their fingers and haranguing me as if I were personally responsible for our mutual predicament. “You must take out your mobile and phone them,” they trilled in unnerving syncopation. “We must get to Le Boulou. You must make them stop the bus here.”
By that time I had already decided that I would throw caution to the wind and reprise my Romford High Street moment.
I pointed to the slip road and indicated visually to the ladies my decision to hitch a lift. With hindsight I might have foreseen the possibility that “showing the thumb” meant something else in their culture as it seemed to spark off a renewed bout of wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Feeling bad about abandoning them, but also more than a little alarmed by their increasingly excitable state, I quickly put a hundred or so metres between us and then adopted a casual-but-purposeful pose by the side of the road. I’ll give it 15 minutes I thought, before I phone home to see about a rescue mission. But it soon became a matter of pride, for as driver after driver studiously ignored me I became more and more determined to succeed in my mission. After all, I reasoned, I had a right on my side. They’d suppriméd the arrêt. People would understand that, wouldn’t they? It’s a valid reason for wanting a lift, isn’t it?
Then, after little more than five minutes, bingo! A car stopped. An older but perfectly respectable Peugeot with a middle-aged male driver and passenger neither of whom seemed to resemble white-slave traders, my sole criteria at that point for chauffeur selection. My initial flush of success was soon tempered when it became clear they were only going as far as Pollestres, barely 5 of the 20 kilometre journey I needed to complete, and one which by now I had elevated in my mind’s eye to a kind of holy pilgrimage. My initial disappointment that the Peugeot wasn’t going all my way was suddenly replaced by this serene, Zen-like, philosophical calm.
What matters it Simon that these kind travellers help you on but a part of your quest?
Is it not said that a humble flask one quarter full is better than a golden chalice that is empty?
For when the frog leaps over the cobra does he not ………….?
Yes, I was starting to sound like a 70s Hollywood kung-fu master, or some second-rate existentialist footballer, when my train of thought was interrupted. The now near-frenzied veiled-ones had caught up, determined to force their way alongside me on the back seat of this very small car. The Peugeot driver looked fearfully at me as if I was one of those hitch-hikers who stands by the roadside seemingly alone but is soon joined by the axe-wielding psychotic rugby team hiding behind the hedge. There was nothing else for it. I gave him the shrug – the one that I hoped conveyed What can I say? Then I tried to explain to the ladies that the Peugeot wasn’t going as far as Le Boulou and in any event it wasn’t my decision as to whether or not they could board, when the front passenger suddenly took an executive decision. He leaned over and sharply pulled the rear door to, giving the driver the cue to gun the accelerator and head off into the blue yonder. Cringe, cringe, I daren’t look behind. Sorreee.
So, off we were to Pollestres and after a little small talk with the driver it suddenly dawned on me. The bus itself hadn’t been suppriméd, only the arrêt at Auchan. I was still five minutes ahead and sure to make it in time to hop on at the next scheduled stop, namely Pollestres.
Flippin’ brilliant. I felt like I was in a Trains, Planes and Automobiles movie where each disaster is redeemed by the next stroke of serendipity. Thanking the driver profusely at Pollestres, I checked my watch – still a couple of minutes to go. I took up my place at the appropriate spot and sure enough, on the horizon appeared my salvation bearing down towards me resplendent in its red and orange Catalan livery. It drove straight past. I caught the eye of the driver for a fleeting moment, just long enough to give him that imploring “Oh come on, you cannot be serious” look but to no avail. This time the driver gave me the shrug. That was it. No explanation. Game over.
I narrowed my eyes and stared hard at the back of the receding bus as if my indignation alone would be enough to stop it in it’s tracks when in the rear window, could it be true? My imagination surely ……. it couldn’t be, the distinct outline of two heavily-veiled ……… What? How? Why? Merde!
To be continued!
You can contact Simon by email: firstname.lastname@example.org