Friday, 29 August 2008

Rouen, Aller et Retour

Rouen, Aller et Retour

The train was packed. Several people were standing in the aisles already. She stood there, a small, slight woman, with light brown skin and a clear complexion, black hair piled on her head, dark eyes, long earrings. Next to her was a girl of about ten and two small boys. She was talking to the man sitting next to me and I wasn't really paying attention. But their voices became louder, she was clearly insistent. So I began to listen. She was saying that she had reserved seats for her and her three children. The man sitting next to me, with his small son perched on his knee, said that she should see the contrôleur if she had any complaints. Their voices became raised. The man's was louder but hers was penetrating and unyielding. I realised that she was referring not just to the seat the loud-voiced man was defending, but mine too, as well as two on the other side of the aisle. I asked to see her tickets. The reserved numbers were clearly written there, whatever the man might say. No question about it then, I stood up. The man next to me went on arguing, but eventually moved his knees just enough to let me squeeze past. I stood in the aisle, along with several other people.

The couple in the seats on the other side of the aisle do not seem to understand French. Il faut les quitter! insists the woman, looking at them very directly. The couple avoid her gaze, look at each other, say something I don't catch, the woman shakes her head slightly, then gazes out of the window. The man, who wears glasses and looks to be in his early fifties, abruptly says quite loudly 'shut up!' This doesn't faze the woman with the reserved seats, she possibly doesn't understand it. Since they clearly know some English I try to explain to them that she had reserved these seats, and paid extra for the reservations. Strangely, the couple do not look at me either. Still without looking at me the woman then says there's normally a ticket on the back of the seat, to indicate its reserved.
Non, jamais, says a young woman with two small children, sitting in front of the seat that had so recently been mine. The couple, who I guess from their accent are Dutch, disagree with this.

The two small boys have squeezed themselves into my vacated seat. The contrôleur appears at the end of the carriage. He is greeted by several raised voices. But he is, surprisingly to me – not very helpful to the reserved seats woman. Someone makes a remark about his 'bulot', to the effect that he is not doing his job. Clearly, this is a supporter of the reserved seats woman. The contrôleur calls out, who's saying I'm not doing my job? And he's trying to sound officious but you can tell that he's clearly exhausted from battling his way through several packed carriages and doesn't really have the stomach for an argument. The vociferous young woman supporter has no hesitation about repeating what she's said. The contrôleur squeezes past us, and has nothing to reply to the advocating young woman taking the part of Madame la réservée. He is clearly not going to prise people out of their seats, but Madame la réservée is not giving up either. She points at the seats occupied by the man and the Dutch couple. The woman with the two children repeats that its not fair, they should give them up. The man who was sitting next to me eventually does get up. But the Dutch couple refuse to look anyone in the eye. The contrôleur is looking a little wild eyed by this time, turns his back and continues pressing past more bodies, which incline over others, to let him through. Madame la réservée raises her voice, although I can't make out what she is saying, as several people are speaking at the same time. Allez en première classe, the contrôleur throws over his shoulder.
But that's right at the other end of the train, Madame la réservée says, why should I go there, with my children and my luggage, squeezing past all the people standing up in all these carriages, when my seats, the ones I paid to reserve, are right here!

The contrôleur's grey uniform recedes, vanishes among the press of bodies, but he repeats – allez en première classe. But she is adamant, she is going nowhere.
Well, says the young woman with two children sitting in front of my ex-seat, moi alors, je vais en première, si elle ne veut pas.
And she stands up, starts gathering up her things.
Do you think we can? I say doubtfully.
Mais oui, bien sur, she says.

So she organizes her children and her things and they move out, I follow her, another young woman follows me and we all begin the long passage, moving past the people standing in the aisles. Madame la réservée moved into the seats vacated by the young woman and her children, so they now all had seats. The journey through the twelve carriages seemed endless. As well as the people standing in the aisles, there were also people squeezed into the little passages between the carriages, some standing, some sitting on the floor. Luggage is piled on the floor, a white dog lies on the floor. And so we make our way through the carriages and finally arrive in the first class seats. I sit down thankfully, stretch my legs in the extra leg room.


P is giving me a lift to the station to catch the train back from Rouen to Paris. We should have left the house ten minutes earlier but P says - Its OK I have a feeling you will catch the train. He has a feeling and I too have a feeling but it isn't certainty, it's uncomfortable, and difficult to trust. It's rush hour and the traffic hardly moves. P swings the van into another lane. He drives it past a stationary truck and the window bangs the side of the truck. I flinch. It's fine he says, ne t'inquiète pas. I take deep breaths.
Now when you get to the station he says, the platform numbers will be displayed on a screen.
Yes yes I think, I know this.
Do not waste a minute, just go straight there.
I won't have a minute to waste I think, there's only about two minutes left before the train leaves but I will have to pause to read the screen.
P screeches up to the station. I grab my bags, lean over to kiss him, stumble out of the van and start to run to the entrance, turn back to wave. My trousers are too loose for running in and I have to hold them up with one hand. Once inside, I see the platform number clearly displayed, it's platform 1, but I cannot find out where to go to reach it. Arrows pointing in various directions to platforms 2, 3 and 4, but where to go for platform 1? Waste valuable seconds going in the wrong direction, then doubling back. One minute to go. Arrive at platform, stick ticket in composter machine. It refuses it. Tournez a l'autre sens it says. Fuming I turn the ticket round, the machine clicks, I run onto the platform but it's empty. I ask someone about the Paris train. It's late they say. But only a minute later a train pulls in. I get on, plenty of seats here. Ah success! But there's an announcement of the stations the train will stop at, as usual almost impossible to make out what's being said, but I'm sure it does not mention Paris. I ask another passenger if this is the Paris train, no he says, it's going to Le Havre. Leap off. Another train arrives. Is this the Paris train I ask someone, no they say, it leaves from the platform opposite. And points. A different platform? How was I supposed to know this? I go to the next platform and see from the illuminated sign that the train waiting here really is going to Paris. Ah relief! I get on the train. Then an announcement says, all passengers for Paris get off and see the contrôleur. So I get off, along with many others, who are crowded around two contrôleurs, and I've arrived too late, I can't hear what he is saying so I ask the silent one, and he explains that yes, you can get that train but it won't get into Paris till 8.10. The other train, the original one, is delayed and they don't seem to know when it will arrive. It was supposed to leave at 5.58 and reach Paris just after 7.00. But this train is definitely going to Paris? I ask. Yes. So I get back on. Better a slow train than an indefinite one.

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