Postcard from Lille, Part 42

The Sign of Two

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
Lille University
© Always Worth Saying, Going Postal 2019

They say that Mrs Crow is the most intelligent of birds but on account of God and nature pre-determining the size of her brood, she is unable to count or comprehend beyond the quantity of two, that being the number of chicks that she gives to the world each year. Your author, dear reader, comes from a small provincial city where there is but one of everything, and therefore lacks that advantage bestowed to Mrs Crow.

Let me explain.

A family party of five would travel the length of England and cross the channel to visit another family member residing, for the purpose of study, under a basement stairs in a Lille University garret reminiscent of a 4th class sleeping compartment on the Karachi & Mairpur Joint Railway in the 1890s (during a year-long cleaning wallah’s strike).

At the planning stage, five proved to be a difficult number to accommodate in one hotel room. Although the Eurostar website allowed for this in theory it did not in practice, with such a room, like that cat of Schrödinger’s (a Frenchman perhaps?) being available but simultaneously unavailable. Likewise, a French reservation site refused to take my money off me because conversely, I think, five in one room was possible in practice but, alas, not in theory.

Plan B saw me booking a room for four in the Novotel beside the railway station and expecting a different volunteer each night to sleep in the waiting room. Having briefed the family, I found myself unexpectedly volunteered for whole gig which led me to plan C. A second room would be booked in the Novotel beside the railway station, paid for by my student son’s ‘Companie International de Loan Estudent’s’ war game money, with an additional contribution from the pointless bureaucratic pit that is the EU’s Erasmus student exchange project.

Let me recap for the benefit of occasional readers who may be slow on the uptake. Book a room at the Novotel beside the railway station, wait a while, then book a room at the Novotel beside the railway station. I must add that your author is a gentleman of a certain age, and those paying attention will recall, a native of a provincial county town where there is but one of everything.

Of course, we’d inadvertently booked two different rooms in two different hotels, next to two different railway stations. We spent much of the break trooping between them.

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
Light pilfering of the Novotel(s)
© Always Worth Saying, Going Postal 2019

I should have realised the danger of ‘twos’ and here’s why:

In a different life, we have adjourned to Jollibee’s burger restaurant after watching the Pope pass in his motorcade. We sit at the back, well away from the taped-up windows. Having thwarted the plot to bomb the Pope, local conditions have returned to the usual background count of shootings and grenade attacks.The evening’s Papal event is a vigil for clergy only. We can relax. Gisele is taking a cell-phone call from our Arabic speaker with freshly translated information from the terrorist’s captured laptop.

‘There are two safe houses.’ Gisele announces grimly, spoiling my yumyum burger and still orange.


‘There’s another terrorist apartment, a second plan.’


Gisele muttered in the national language into the cell-phone before replying,

‘Room 14, Everlasting Properties, Singalong Street.’

The Arabic speaker had consulted the map on my hotel room wall. Singalong Street was nearby, a secondary thoroughfare, half way between Taft and Osmena. At its northern end, Singalong was literally a minute’s walk from the Pope’s residence at the Embassy of the Holy See. But neither the Arabic speaker nor ourselves had any idea where Everlasting Properties might be.

Off we raced, no guns, no car. There was a row of taxies outside Jollibee. We sprinted past them. The streets were still busy with pilgrims, the traffic clogged. I was still eating my yumyum burger, which I finished during the ensuing ten-minute brisk jog. It was clammy hot. Fortunately, I was dressed in silk and cotton. Manila was in need of a typhoon. Deep athletic breaths filled me with the smell, taste and texture of dusty streets and clogged sewers. Gisele matched me stride for stride. Always able to run faster barefoot, she held her sports shoes in her hands like batons.

Singalong Street was a jumble even by local standards. Many of the buildings were not numbered or named, or they had more than one number or name, or numbers and names were partly obscured by piles of rubbish or hidden by trees growing out of the side of the road. We pan-handled passers-by, asking for directions to Everlasting Properties, with no success.

Gisele lent against a wall and shrugged her shoulders as a ‘What next?’ She took a cigarette, lit it and drew on it. She handed it to me as a courtesy, knowing full well that I didn’t smoke. I blew on it, making its tip glow redder and the paper peel back faster from the flame. I blew little puffs, making it smoke and twist. Then I had an idea. A cartoon character light bulb appeared above my head, not lit by a filament but by raging tobacco.

‘What’s next?’, I replied to Gisele, ‘our super-efficient friends at the fire brigade, that’s what’s next.’

I handed her cigarette back and called the emergency number on my cell-phone, asked firstly for the fire brigade and then for directions to Everlasting Properties, Singalong Street.

‘And?’, Gisele enquired as I returned my cell-phone to my pocket, disappointed.

‘Not a directions service. Get off the line in case there’s an emergency.’

Gisele used her cell-phone. She chattered away in the national language.

‘And?’, I returned the compliment.

‘Wait patiently mister and look out for flashing lights and sirens.’

‘You didn’t, did you?’

‘Of course I did. The guest orphan pilgrims are locked-in, trapped at Everlasting. Screaming, pulling at the bars on the windows. Jeep with a sledgehammer required, quick–quick.’

We looked up and down the street while listening out for a siren. Sure enough, with indecent haste, our best friends at the super-efficient fire department provided us with distant noise and flashing lights. What next?

‘Follow that red jeep.’

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
Singalong Street
Wikicommons – by Judgefloro – Public Domain

We tore down the street scattering piles of cardboard boxes and caught up with the fire jeep outside the Everlasting property. Compared to their original Dona Josefa apartments safe house, it was very much a terror cell’s second choice. It was three stories high, decrepit and had been difficult to find as it had more than one name. On the ground floor, the rooms opened onto the street, which was handy. However, the windows were heavily barred and any nefarious intent plotted inside fourteen’s front room was concealed by a drawn yellow curtain. Outside, a crowd of locals talked in animated puzzlement to a fireman. I interrupted them,

‘Suspected bomb factory, bash the door down for me.’

The fireman hesitated,

‘I left Jollibee in a bit of a rush and haven’t got my semi destructive door entry kit with me. Perhaps a sledgehammer?’

The fireman still hesitated.

Gisele intervened, ‘There’s the bomb factory’, she pointed at the front door.

She pointed beyond the fireman’s shoulder towards the next street.

‘And there’s the Pope’s residence, quick-quick.’

She pointed at the bashed side of my head,

‘My dear friend has already given half his face stopping their plan A, perhaps you read about it in the newspaper? This is their plan B.’

The fireman took an axe to the door and made short work of it. As soon as it began to crumble, I finished it off with a few kicks. Jumping over the remains, Gisele scrambled in behind me. We took great care not to switch anything on. I pulled the window curtain open. Gisele checked the neighbouring rooms. There were no actual internal doors or partitions, just open doorways. There was no sign of life. It was no bomb factory. It was simply furnished, with a few ordinary belongings neatly about. Photos were stuck to the wall, coat hangers and garments hung from the door frames. I was the last to realise. Gisele, thinking ahead of me, squeezed my arm and dug her nails into me, as though we were in a car about to crash.

The fireman gasped, crossed himself and whispered ‘Papa’. One of those photos was a big picture of the Pope. I took another glance around the room. This time the Moro’s plan was blindingly obvious to me. It was already being executed, the terrorist well ahead of us, ourselves now obliged to a frantic game of catch up. There were two coat hangers. One empty, one holding a priest’s garments. The one covered in vestments must have been for the terrorist that had been caught. The empty one must have held the vestments for a terrorist that had escaped, and was now disguised as a priest, in order to take his murderous intent as close to the Holy Father as possible.

‘I’ll put the priest’s clothes on, for our hot pursuit, and get as close as I can’, I said to Gisele, ‘you can cover me.’

But before I had finished the sentence, Gisele had already taken the cassock down for herself and was undressing. What does a priest wear under his cassock? Certainly not bra and knickers (we assume). To preserve her modesty, I closed my eyes tight and put my hands (fingers firmly closed) across them. Gisele stripped down to her white bra and blue bikini bottoms. One might imagine. As I was saying, what does a priest wear under his cassock? An identical but smaller cassock? Why would I guess at such a thing? Because I know what a Scotsman wears under his kilt.

Following a dreich moonlight nicht at a particularly towsy wedding reception in a gospel hall next to a kirk in a fishing village near Prestonpans, (the Moderator having lost control, following a dram or five), all was revealed – a little bit too literally. Under their kilts, Scotsmen wear another, smaller under-kilt, complete with mini sporran, outsized safety pin and ivory-handled dagger. But what do priests wear under their cassocks? Never had cause to ask and certainly have never had cause to look.

Gisele continued to undress. Falling layers took her from looking like a Monseigneur’s mistress (in the most exclusive parish in Montevideo), to a whiskey priest’s squeeze, to a hermit monk’s (up a pole in the Syrian desert) seed robbing, barley clad, slave girl dream of temptation. And then it happened, despite the absence of air conditioning and chilled mineral water, the flag threatened to drop.

I’m a great believer in throwing a suit on five minutes before setting off and have always been somewhat baffled by the female of the species taking longer to get dressed than the actual event itself. However, cassocks require two pairs of hands for them to be fitted properly. Again, I know not how the priest does it and am too embarrassed to ask. Suffice it to say, I had to loosen Gisele’s tippet (yes, I know) and then I had to help her to get her tassels to just how she likes them (oh dear). She even repeated, ‘Keep doing that,’ as I manipulated them.

‘But one’s slightly lower than other’, I observed.

‘They nearly always are. They’re supposed to be’, she explained.

By this time, in order to look like a young man, she’d tied her hair up and rubbed dirt off the floor around her jaw to give herself a bit of a shadow. There’s something about knowing what secretly lies beneath when nobody else does, which causes the blood to flow more vigorously. Suffice it to say, something stirred and I’m not boasting when I say it was very difficult to hide.

There are different ways that a gentleman can dress for the tropics. I was dressed in cotton pants above bare skin and, (readers who are easily over-excited might want to nip themselves and think of Ann Widdicombe now) was dressed to the left which, depending on a gentleman’s physique, might have made things better, but in my instance, given my body shape, stance and the way I hold myself (dear God), made things ten times worse. I looked at the ceiling. We must turn feelings to thoughts, urges to process. She mentioned a new movie just out at the cinema. I tried to talk about the weather.

‘Perhaps you could just control yourself?’, she chastised me.

‘Perhaps you could just not dress up as a girl, dressed up as a boy, dressed up as a priest?’

Paging Doctor Freud. Neither of us could answer these questions, Gisele was an MBA, quite a rational person, strong-willed and emotional but not at all fiery by the standards of her sex and the locale. The highest point of my education was an academic paper on submarine production. Both of our ids had laid miss-understood, never felt or rationalised. We were out of our depth. We rescued ourselves by having the same bright idea simultaneously.

‘Game on’, we shouted together and sprinted out of the room and into the street. I held my hands out to the vertical and wiggled my fingers to stop a startled taxi driver, while Gisele stood beside me in her cassock, holding her clothes under an arm.

‘Take us to San Augustine Church for the Holy Father’s clergy vigil’, announced Gisele in a deep voice, before adding, ‘then take these clothes to the Manila Orchid hotel, leave on the twelfth floor.’

I felt I had to explain,

‘The blouse, three-quarter length pink shorts, little white ankle socks and pink sports shoes (size two) are a friend’s’, I added perfectly truthfully.

‘Yes, a friend’s,’ Gisele repeated with her chin pressed to where her Adam’s apple might be, lowering her voice further by making a grumpy face.

‘Of course, father’, replied the taxi driver.

To be continued …..

© Always Worth Saying 2019

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