from A Squandered Life / Paris '69
The day came when, with my worldly goods, a sleeping bag, and a waterproof poncho strapped on to the chrome rack of the BSA, and wearing a pea jacket and a leather jerkin, I said my goodbyes to Maria and one or two others who happened to be around and chugged off down the winding drive to the main road. I was bound for the Channel ferry at Dover for the shortest sea trip to mainland France. My plan, if you could call it that, was to “see” Paris and then head south in search of warmer weather and travel around Spain, stopping near Gerona where I had a contact who would “almost certainly” offer me some work. As the year progressed, I would then follow the warm weather back up north to Germany and to Scandinavia where I would explore the homeland of my mother and bask in the midnight sun.
I approached the ferry docks and, after passport control, was waved to the front of the waiting queue of cars and trucks. As the gigantic end of the ship opened up, I was ushered up the ramp, into the cavernous space, and along to the front where I was tucked up close to the side superstructure. I dismounted and watched as the seamen strapped my bike down to lugs in the steel deck, then went upstairs to watch the mystical white cliffs fade into the distance. At about the time the cliffs disappeared, the coast of France appeared on the other horizon and slowly grew to fill it as we pulled into the landing docks at Calais.
I headed off gingerly, remembering to keep my right shoulder nearest the curb. It was a grey day and nothing struck me apart from the flat land and the straight lines of trees down each side of the road and the fact that, judging by the sign posts, I seemed to be covering a lot of miles in relatively short order before realising that, of course, they were posting in kilometres.
Typically, I had only the vaguest of plans for Paris. My friend Jerome had suggested I look up his ex-sister-in-law whom I'd met a couple of times at his place. After some dodgey moments on the Periferique and one or two of the frighteningly massive roundabouts, I stopped to buy a city map and ask directions. Although I could get by asking the questions, my school French wasn't helping much as I tried to fathom what was being said in response. At one point, quite near I thought to my destination, a lady responded to my query by pointing repeatedly down the road and saying, “Tous droit, tous droit.” I naturally assumed she was saying turn right and right again (yes, she was saying, “Straight ahead, straight ahead”) and I was soon lost again. It was near nightfall when I finally found the address. I was confronted by a fierce concierge who looked me up and down disdainfully and informed me that, of course, they were all away on holiday.
So to Plan B, except that I didn't have one of those either. As I cruised aimlessly around, I spotted a row of abandoned derelict terraced houses in varying states of collapse. After a bit of foot reconnaissance, I drove the bike up a rough footpath and through a doorless doorway, into a small half roofed room off to the side. I spread out my sleeping bag on the sagging floor and slept the sleep of the sublimely unaware.
In the morning I awoke to the sound of engines and movement outside, then silence. As I got up there was a tap tap at the shutters still in place on the front window. I wasn't expecting visitors but I opened one of the shutters to see, standing well back in case there was trouble, a fully geared up riot policeman. And arrayed behind him was a phalanx of about thirty similarly dressed policemen all looking my way, and behind them again a row of corrugated snub nose Citroen police vans with wire mesh bolted across their front windscreens.
“Bonjour,” I said to the one nearest me. He asked me what I was doing there. I said I was just getting up, having slept the night. “Is there anybody else in there?” he asked. “No,” I said. He didn't look as if he believed me and glanced off to his left. I leaned slightly out of the window to follow his glance down the tumbling terrace. There, a couple of doors down, stood a neighbour of whom I'd been totally oblivious. A tiny ancient white haired lady in her kitchen smock was peering out of her ramshackle doorway and regarding me with incriminating suspicion. I can't have been less surprised than she. I couldn't have imagined anybody actually making a home in this dilapidated setting, but there she was - clear as day and clearly affronted.
“She reported many people in here last night. There was a lot of noise,” said the policeman. “No, only me,” I said. He asked for my passport and, having studied it, concluded I wasn't a threat and said, “Go. You cannot stay here.” He went back to his men and they all rested their shields and pulled out their Gauloises. I went back into the room, rolled up my gear and packed the bike. When I was ready, I kick started it and rode out through the front door again.
To my horror, all the cops had thrown away their fags and grabbed their shields and stood braced for what they must have assumed was an armoured charge. I stopped the bike immediately and switched it off to calm all our frazzled nerves. The officer again approached me, more angrily, and I had then to produce papers for my bike as well.
In the end we parted without blows. I looked nervously back as I rode away. The old lady, still standing in the doorway of her precarious façade, glaring fiercely after me, was still plainly the most affronted of us all.
© 2013 Deacon Martin