The Sloth in France: The Train journey from Paris
Description* The Sloth in France: The Train journey from Paris
After a somewhat bewildering safari through the jungle of panic stricken passengers and scouring the labrythine halls of Charles De Gaulle airport, the Sloth and I find ourselves seated on the TGV flying towards the ancient city of Arras. Steeped in history and whose soil is soaked with blood of those lost in the many wars. Thanks to the Sloth’s ingenious linguistic abilities and his rather dubious brand of charm with the doe-eyed African princess dispensing the ‘Billets.’ We settled back into our seats and watched the French landscape slip past the window. A flat expanse of arable land dotted with occasional cows and pricked with leafless poplar trees, stretched away to where a sodden earth met the pearl grey sky. In Britain we have heard a great deal about Le Train a Grande Vitesse in comparison to our own ailing railway system. Great emphasis is placed on speed and comfort and as the countryside flashed by in a blur of greens and browns we had to agree that it was very fast indeed. Sloth’s wandering eye slyly followed the progress of a chic ‘Jolie Madame’ as she squeezed past, exposing a great deal of slender calf. He breathed a sigh of contentment. Soon our reverie was disturbed by the arrival of Le Controleur smartly attired in a grey jacket, snowy white shirt and blood red tie. ’Billets, s’il vous plait’ The Sloth handed over the tickets with a certain Anglo-Saxon nonchalance. Le controleur scrutinised the tickets, his black moustache bristled with importance and disapproval. He fixed us with his snapping brown eyes and said in perfect English, ‘What nationality are you?’ A puzzled Sloth answered, ’British, Monsieur’. ‘Passports!’ he snapped ‘Passports?’ squeaked the Sloth ‘Oui Monsieur, Passports’, he grimaced, showing small, pointed teeth. Clearly, a close relative of the weasel family. Sloth patted his pockets frantically. A film of sweat gave his face an unhealthy shine. The minutes ticked by, eating into an embarrassed silence as he searched in the many pockets of his leather jacket. Finally he produced the passports and handed them over. They were closely examined then snapped shut and handed back. ‘You did not put your tickets into the machine on the platform. This proves at which station you boarded the train’, he said with an air of triumph. We both looked mystified at these Gestapo tactics. He leaned down towards us and put his face next to the Sloth’s. ‘I could fine you 30 euros’ he said nastily ‘We didn’t know’, pleaded the Sloth. ‘No one told us!’ For an answer Monsieur Controleur gave a Gallic shrug and turned away. We watched in relief as he shouldered his way up the aisle, bent on terrorising other innocent passengers. The Sloth and I were on our way to Hesdin in the Pas de Calais region, to look after his brother-in-law’s house while he was in America on business. I was already wondering if we had done the right thing agreeing to it. It was too late now. After waiting on icy, unsheltered platforms and riding on some rather less than luxurious trains, we arrived at Hesdin. The Sloth lugged our heavy trolley bag wearily from the train. It seemed unusually dark or was it just that the Conseil de Hesdin had decided to save on street lighting. A sort of economy and ecology drive combined. A shape loomed up out of the darkness and came forward with an outstretched hand. He smiled up into the Sloth’s face, displaying perfect white teeth. ‘Vous etes Monsieur Simon? Je m’appelle Michel. Votre voisin.’ The Sloth smiled weakly at this unlikely guardian angel. Michel took the trolley bag as if it weighed nothing at all. ‘Suivez moi’. We all piled in to a battered little white Renault that had seen better days. Michel gunned the engine and we roared off into the thick, black night. After a hair raising drive through winding lanes with only the scared white faces of the cows peering over the hedges to bear witness to our folly, Michel yanked the little car over and we pulled into a large gravel drive. ‘Voila! Nous sommes ici!’, he murmured. The house was large and brightly lit. As we entered we were enveloped in warmth and the smell of something delicious cooking in the oven. The long table near the window was laid with gleaming cutlery and crystal and a chandelier hung down impressively. The Sloth and I looked at Michel. He beamed. The smile reached his shining black eyes. ’Ma soeur’, he said simply, with outstretched hands, palms up, indicating the elegant spread before us. The ornately carved drinks cabinet in the corner was stacked with bottles of alcohol of every description. Michel took a bottle of Pastis and poured himself a large measure into a glass. He then despatched the entire contents in one swallow. ’C’est bon’ he gasped and wiped his mouth. He ran his long fingered hand through his unruly brown hair. ‘ Voila! Je vais, Simon’. The Sloth came out of his trance, ‘Aren’t you going to eat with us, Michel?’ He took the Sloth’s hand and shook it up and down vigorously, and in his halting English said ’Another day my friend’. Then he was gone out of the door into his little car and disappeared into the unlit lanes of this corner of northern France. After a hot shower we fell on the Coq au Vin we found in the oven and finished off with a tart aux pommes and fresh cream. We drank copious amounts of the deep burgundy wine until we were both totally incoherent. Then we finally collapsed into bed and sank under the blanket of oblivion. The Sloth and I slept the sleep of the just and awoke refreshed. He was finishing his coffee when a timid knock came at the door. Through the glass I could see what looked like the shape of a child. When I opened it I was surprised to find a tiny old lady smiling up at me. At that moment a strong gust of wind tugged at a pile of dead leaves in the corner of the drive. It hurled them up into the air where they fluttered like birds before coming down and landing in her wispy, white hair. She seemed totally unfazed by the icy blast that blew through the shawl draped around her thin shoulders. ‘Bonjour Madame, Je suis Mathilde.’ she piped in a reedy voice. ‘Bonjour, Mathilde’ and I held the door open for her to step inside. As she came in she handed me a plate covered with a spotless, red checked cloth. Beneath the cloth nestled a moist tart aux pommes glistening with traces of sugar. She glanced round the house proprietarily and breathed a sigh of satisfaction. We each bent down in turn for our kisses. We pulled out the rocking chair for her and she sat down. Her feet didn’t touch the floor and she looked more than ever like a visiting child. Mathilde began explaining immediately in clear, well spoken French, that this house once belonged to her brother until he sold it to the Anglais. This was a subject that was dear to her heart and she soon became very animated. She prattled along while the Sloth punctuated her sentences with an occasional ‘oui!’ and ‘non!’ and ‘alors!’, whenever she took a breath, which wasn’t often. ‘The whole village is selling their houses to Les Rosbifs’. She said. ‘ Laurent Martin next door got 190,000 euros. Vous imaginez! Une fortune! Alors! He inherited the house from his mother. He’s never had a proper job in his life because everyone knows he’s a bit simple. Now he’s a rich man and he’s gone to live with his sister in St Pol and he’s banked the money.’ Not a complete idiot, then. ‘As for Virginie Rambert who used to live in the big scruffy old house opposite, well she got a whopping 250,000 euros. Yes! She’s another one! She lived with her mother until she died aged 98. Then two years ago nice a English couple came looking at the houses in the village. They took one look at that dirty old house of Virginie’s with those big rusty gates and all that ivy covering the windows and said ‘How much?’ Margot Rene was standing there and over heard Virginie say, quick as a flash, ‘250,000 euros’. Les Rosbifs shook her hand and cried a bit and then they wrote out the cheque there and then.!!! ’ Mathilde shook her head in disbelief at the utter foolishness of human beings. She gave a little shiver in her chair. The Sloth, ever sensitive to the needs of others, noticed her bright, bird’s eyes slyly wander over to the drinks cabinet. He jumped up solicitously and took up a tiny, thimble sized glass. ‘A little Pastis to keep the cold out Mathilde?’ ‘Oh Oui! Oui, Monsieur. Tres gentil’ She cried and drank it down in one. Two red spots appeared on each cheek. She leaned forward to continue while Sloth jumped up to get her a refill. ‘Last month two young men came round to ask me if I wanted to sell up. I think they were….well, you know, together’ the words tumbled out in a rush. She leaned even further out of her chair and whispered ‘omosexual’. Lovely boys though. They were very handsome and clean. In fact, if I had been going to sell it I would have let them have it. I know they would have taken care of it, but I couldn’t sell it you know. It was my mother’s house and her mother’s before her. I was born in that house and I will die in it.’ She sighed and sipped at her Pastis reflectively. ‘Jean-Claude the funeral director has put my name and my date of birth on our tombstone. I’ll be buried with Etienne. He’s been gone 10 years now. There’s not a day goes by without I think of him. It’s very beautiful. It’s white marble with my name in gold lettering. It’s already in the cemetery you know. I go and look at it sometimes. I find it such a comfort. Jean Claude has left a space for the date of when Jesus and I will meet for the first time’ The Sloth and I looked at each other. We felt humbled by this brave, fiery little person and her pragmatic attitude to life and death. ‘Another little Pastis Mathilde?’ asked the Sloth. ‘Oh no! Merci Monsieur! I must get back home. The priest is visiting this afternoon. I came to ask if there’s anything I can do for you and all I’ve done is talk about myself. Excusez-moi!’ She got up from her chair and moved towards the door. We exchanged goodbye kisses and watched her little figure being propelled up the road by a buffeting wind. Rusty Gladdish wishes to be identified as the author of this work as asserted by the Copyright, Designs and Patents 1988. All characters in this story are fictitious and any similarity to anyone living or dead is purely coincidental.