France is one of those countries where children are encouraged and indulged, even on trains. My carriage was nearly full. It was modern and airy but noisy. I am on L’Aquitaine, a crack express that leaves Paris for the provinces at tea time, heading south-west from Gare d‘Austerlitz to the Atlantic coast. Children are playing in the aisle. Two of the little ones have a plastic tractor, big enough to sit on. It is a July evening in the 1980s. We thunder through the countryside.
I am beginning to worry about my contact, an unknown, who I haven’t yet spotted amongst my fellow passengers.
An elderly gentleman sits beside me. Part of a couple, his wife sits behind. Occasionally they turn to chat, share a bottle of water or swap magazines. An old lady, clothed darkly as though in mourning, reads. Two young girls chat. They are elegantly dressed, everything matching in vivid pastel colours. Another gentleman, as French gentleman do, stares at a pretty girl.
French newspapers aren’t much use if your French is awful and you’ve looked at all of the pictures. There’s nothing else to do with them other than to roll them into a weapon and wait for an irritating child on a plastic tractor to come within battering range.
All was nicely set up, my wrist was where I wanted it to be, the newspaper drawn back by the other hand, nicely below the parallel. Four-year-old Guy, his little friend Eves and Henri le Tractor, were about to enter the kill zone when I was interrupted by an unexpected smile.
The pretty girl was smiling at the children as they neared, rather than ignoring them as the French would. I looked away quickly, finding the smile in reflection on my window, its face superimposed upon on the ears of mid-summer corn waving in the wind beside the unfenced track.
I unrolled my newspaper and pretended to read it. She glanced toward me. The train swept on. Then she was standing and making her move. She spoke, firstly in French to the elderly couple,
“Would you two like to sit together?”
And then, in English, to me,
“Shall we let these two people sit together?”
A minute later I was being thanked by an elderly lady, now beside her husband, settling herself into my old seat. A minute after that, I was beside my contact, an attractive young woman, who looked even younger than my early-twenties self.
You should never judge people on a first impression but we all do. Where to begin? She had long hair, slightly wavy, an American style, worn from age six to sixty. It was mousy but highlighted with an evil ear dissolving spray called “Hair Glow” which Americans use in the summer.
Her features were gentle and slightly pinched, including a cute little nose and blue eyes below natural eyebrows. Again, in the American style, a lovely smile of perfect teeth, a very slim and nicely proportioned figure. As for me, she observed me with my tongue hanging out, cow-eyed, dribbling, any sense of impartial judgement lying in a pool on the floor. That’s how easy it is for females. It was a slaughter. Ladies do not need ’rights’ to make their way in the world, only to be girls.
Both of us, like twins, were wearing sports shoes, jeans and tee shirts.
She broke the ice by talking about sport. She asked me what I played. She confused football with soccer and I confused hockey with field hockey. We corrected each other and laughed, our differences bringing us together, our opposites attracting. Television? I knew some of her favourite shows. She’d brought her Dr Who books with her. They were in her haversack, next to the electric toaster.
“It doesn’t work because it has the wrong type of plug,” she confessed, “And I’ve brought soap and toilet rolls – just in case.”
“Where did you pick up that accent?” I asked.
“Newark, New Jersey”, she replied, pronouncing it, “Newik, Nu Joisey”, but only just. She was either posh or faking it.
She had a West of England family name which she mistakenly and determinedly thought was Irish, even to the point of being a Saint Paddy’s day obsessive. She had a very American given name, “Tammy”. Her cover was that she was ‘doing Europe’ before her second year at a very respectable New England school. She had squabbled with her travelling girlfriend and now needed a “doing Europe buddy.”
“So do I,” I exclaimed.
“Let’s hook up,” she replied.
We shook hands. The deal was done. Her hand was so light in mine it that it felt as though she was made of fragrant, warm air. There was an awkward moment when I held it for slightly too long while she smiled slightly too brightly. By now I thought I was going to faint, in fact, I thought I was going to melt. One has heard of “honey traps”. One always thinks, “How stupid? How could somebody be so thick?” At least myself and Tammy were on the same side, doing the same job, trying to achieve the same outcome. Fingers crossed.
If there was a silence she would wait a little, in case I wanted to speak, and only then fill it. She developed what I was interested in, feeling for the right buttons, trying to get to know me, being considerate. She was very good indeed. It was a masterclass.
In turn, she opened up to me, began to tell me all about her family, her older brother and sister. She was the indulged youngest child,
“Like Hitler and Stalin,” I observed.
“Yes, like Hitler and Stalin, really not funny, said in a loud voice on a French train,” she replied laughing and smiling more.
We told funny stories about our travels and listened to each other with interest, never interrupting each other, there was lots of eye contact, smiles and questions between quick, funny and unexpected remarks.
Tammy’s backpack was huge. It’s noticeable that the Americans are always well prepared for this kind of thing; fully equipped, been on a course, spent a lot of money, even learnt a language or three.
Her Majesty’s humble servants are expected to live on their wits and improvise. In extremis we must try to bump into somebody we went to school with. When in difficulties, we might get a prison visit once every three years from a chap at the Embassy, who gets our name wrong. An American, on the other hand, can expect a black ops chopper full of marines to blow their cell door open.
As well as the Doctor Who books and an electric toaster, Tammy had brought with her at least two of everything. How do I know this? She tipped it all out onto the floor. Why? To liberate a bottle of introductory wine. She handed to me in triumph as if to consummate one of those instant, heartfelt, easily earned American friendships.
Alas, we were thundering through Gironde with a toaster but no corkscrew. The shame. I was dispatched to the dining car to borrow one, along with two wine glasses, my French much improved.
Trying to liberate the cork, I straightened out the corkscrew. Are these things clockwise in England and counter-clockwise on the Continent?
Back in my seat, I told Tammy the tale, while pouring her a small glass and inviting her to taste and smell. She approved, announcing it a pleasant vintage. Two large glasses ensured. We clinked them together and looked out of the window.
To me, the countryside seemed huge, almost like being at sea, beyond Bordeaux now, we sped across vast un-hedged fields along a flat landscape. Tammy announced the exact opposite,
“Everywhere’s so small, there’s no need even to fly.”
Unusually for her, everything passed at ground level, every detail, building, person and animal were visible to her. En cue, two horses scattered from the side of the track, bounding away, startled by the suddenness and the noise of the train. They showed their rumps and tails to our passing window.
Tammy began to gush again, as Americans do. She continued her life story whilst, I must say, I gave away a little bit too much of mine. It was all going a bit too well, there was something between us, an electricity. We began to end each other’s sentences. I noticed that our shoulders and knees were touching. The French had noticed too.
She tucked her arm under mine and leant towards me as if for the most intimate of confidences,
“Everybody looking at us,” she whispered.
“We’re supposed to be being discreet,” I replied.
She thought for a moment.
“We’re in France, it’s supposed to be like this. Sitting on our hands, looking at the seat in front in total silence would be so suspicious.”
There was a game we could play to lighten the mood even further.
“I’ll show you mine if you show me yours?” I offered.
She giggled. I showed her my passport.
She gagged at the photo, spilling some wine down her chin and declaring it nothing like me. She took her own out of a little ‘bum bag’ around her waist.
She looked exactly like her photo. I narrowed my eyes and lowered my voice to remind her that nothing was more suspicious than looking like one’s passport photo. She giggled some more.
I passed mine to her. She opened it and read from the inside front cover in her preppy New Jersey accent, struggling a little with the curly writing,
“Her Britannic Majesty’s principal secretary of state for foreign and common-wealth affairs requests and requires in the name of Her Majesty….”
She stopped, “No, I’m not impressed, it’s too old fashioned,” she complained.
“It’s not,” I corrected her, “its rather grand, makes us sound more important than we really are and intimidates bad people.”
“But we’re not here to intimidate anybody,” she replied in an effected boozy drawl, “‘we’re here to be everybody’s friend.”
I tried to stifle the laugh but couldn’t, she joined in, we would have laughed until we cried but we were interrupted by an announcement. The Spanish border was approaching.
To be continued …….
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file