Thursday 29 September 2011

The Wrong End of the Train

Tinto de Verano (Wine of Summer)
Julie-Ann Corrigan

I am sitting on a bleached white beach, squinting towards an impossibly turquoise sea.  The temperature is over thirty degrees.  Even on this empty stretch of sand, I can see a waiter from the hotel hovering a respectable distance behind me.  Waiting for a wave of my hand, which will indicate my need for more water.
 Five star travel.  It’s great but as I feel the attentive eyes of the hotel worker; I feel nostalgia for my youth, the spontaneity of student travel and backpacking with little cash.  I miss the thirst that wasn’t quenched as quickly as the one I have today.  But when it was finally satisfied, probably from a public water fountain in an obscure mountain Spanish village – God, did it feel good.

Garboesque (I like to think), I continue to peer out across the Caribbean Sea, hoping the waiter will find another more willing hotel guest and leave me alone.

A busy life halts nostalgia.  I now have a few moments to indulge.  And so I do and breaking the intrinsic rules of English politeness, I tell the waiter to leave me alone.

*     *     *

The guard at the Gare d’Austerlitz was emphatic about which end of the train we should be heading for.  Sue and I were laughing too much to take him seriously.  It didn’t matter to us – we were getting on a train, in Paris, our inter-rail tickets tucked firmly in our backpacks.  We didn’t care which end of the train we sat in.  I saw the guard vaguely shake his head in that Parisian sort of way. 

  Barcelona, here we come, was my only thought.

We slept all the way, missing out on the spaghetti western scenery and the beauty of the Pyrenees.  It must have been the rough red wine that we’d swigged before the train had even left the outskirts of Paris.

I think I woke up once or twice on the journey.  Once when elbowed by a convivial looking Spaniard and again when the driver did something funny with the breaks.  The second time I didn’t go back to sleep.  We seemed to be entering a big city.  I told Sue it was Barcelona.  She winked at me with a sleepy eye, pulled out the remainder of the wine and finished it off.  We were going to have a hoot.

I’m really not quite sure when we realised it wasn’t Barcelona.  Looking back, I guess it was when the nice lady at the British Embassy in Madrid, told us. 

‘You got on the wrong end of the train,’ she said.  I got the distinct impression she had quoted this line many times, to many student travellers.  I felt suitably silly.  Sue had gone very quiet.  I think she had a hangover.  ‘It’s the other half that stopped in Barcelona…didn’t you realise you’d been on the train too long?’

I eyed up Sue.  She gave me the evil glance, ‘We were sleeping…’ I said.

The lady sighed, ‘We’ll have to get you temporary passports…’

We spent twelve hours at the Embassy.  The pick pockets on the Madrid underground had taken everything.  I don’t quite know how they’d managed it.  Genius is what came to mind.  But I didn’t say that to Sue.  I don’t think she would have found it funny. 

No one asked us if we had enough money for a room that night.  We did.  Only just, if we didn’t eat or drink a thing.  Sue wasn’t happy.  I agreed that we could use the last few pesetas’ on a drink.  We found a bar just around the corner from our Pension and near to the bank where I’d asked my parents to wire us money; Sue’s Mum and Dad were on holiday in Australia.

‘We really ought to go into the bank first – sort everything out,’ I said.

‘Just one drink…you know it’ll take ages in there,’ Sue said.

I agreed and watched Sue down exactly one half of the cerveza, she handed the glass to me and I finished it off.  We both agreed it was the best beer we’d ever tasted.

The bank manager was tall (I thought) for a Spaniard and not that old.  Must be a high flyer.  He had a laughing face but no smile.  I would never know how he managed that.

We filled out gazillions of forms.  Sue asked him if we could borrow a few pesetas until the money reached us; her stomach grumbled at the same time.  The bank manager’s lips began to match his laughing face.

‘Tienes hambre?’

‘Of course we’re bloody hungry!’  Sue said.  As well as being tri-lingual, she also had a massive appetite.

‘You two girls, wait in the bar across the street…’ he looked at his watch, ‘I finish work at five – I’ll meet you in there.’  He really was astonishingly handsome.  I looked at Sue.  She didn’t look convinced.  She was also very cynical.  He surveyed the two of us, ‘You can pay me back tomorrow, when your money arrives.  But tonight I will ensure that guests to my country won’t starve.’  He was now laughing out loud.  He handed Sue a wad of notes. I kicked her under the chair; she yelped and said gracias to the gracious Spaniard.

‘We don’t eat very much.’  I was lying, Sue did.  It never crossed my mind that we could now buy our own dinner.

Prior to visiting the bank we had hung out four washed knickers on the line which was precariously strung across the small balcony. 

In our shared room at the Pension we attempted to make ourselves look presentable, both silently acknowledging the charisma of ‘our’ bank manager.

‘Where’s our knickers?’ Sue said.

‘Drying on the balcony,’ I said.

‘No they’re not…been nicked, I think.’

We collapsed onto the small bed, giggling uncontrollably. 

We’d even had our underwear stolen.

Dalmacio Navarro was true to his word.  He arrived at our table bang on five.  When we told him about the knickers I saw how the whole of his face laughed.

We ate an abnormal amount of food.  I don’t think Sue stopped for air.  Dalmacio sat back in his chair and watched.  I don’t remember him eating a thing.

*     *     *

The turquoise sea is receding, leaving the perfect smoothness of wet sand.  I look at my absent watch.  It is snuggled in the hotel safe.  I never wear a time-piece on holiday.  I sense more than hear soft footsteps close to me.  Must be the waiter.  I’m ready for that water now.

Hola, nina.’

It isn’t the waiter, it is my husband.

I kiss him, ‘Hello there.’

‘Where are you, nina?  Miles away, I can see.’

‘I was back in Madrid…’  I watch his face and eyes smile, followed quickly by the lips.

‘Ah!  A little nostalgia?’

I stand and brush sand off my expensive bikini, ‘Only a little.’

We stroll back to our expensive hotel room.  I look at the bed; it is full of bags, with two rucksacks at the front – packed.

‘We’re not due back until next week,’ I say.

‘We’re not going home.  I’ve checked us out the hotel…they will keep our suitcases.’  The lines around his eyes became deeper, ‘Thought you might enjoy roughing it for a week, see the island…I’ve packed your oldest denims… we can drink beer instead of wine and cocktails.’

While we wait for the bus outside the hotel (the concierge is very confused we don’t want a taxi), I send Sue a text.  I have only to wait a few moments for a reply.

Make sure you leave most of your cash in the hotel safe…you know how much better the beer tastes when you can only have a half…!

 My husband and I set off on our adventure.  Forging into a future which will become an intrinsic part of our timeline; a future that will become our past – and an integral part of who we are.
About Julie-Ann:
Julie-Ann began writing ‘seriously’ on January 1st 2008.  She had her first short story published in the ‘Devils, Demons and Werewolves’ Anthology in 2010.  She has had articles published in the online Arts and Culture magazine, ‘Beat,’ and also ‘The Writing Magazine.’
You can read her interview with thriller writer RJ Ellory in this month’s issue of ‘Beat.’ and also read about her excitement at the Hay Literary Festival in June 2011
She has completed the first draft of her first novel, which is set partly in the Spanish Civil War.  She tweets as aspirinnovelist and can be contacted via her e-mail – 

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