23 May 2016

ObserVation: The Boat-Train {A Journey in 4 Acts} -:- Act 1

This is a story that rolled out over one day in May 74. The facts are as true as they can be after such a long time. I’ve added my style of telling but that’s all. I was over as often as possible in those days, and the boat train was the cheapest way for regular trips between Cologne and London. This trip was for 3 days to visit a concert of a friend. I was glad to be getting away and needed to get to London to tank up on fish & chips, English tea, HP sauce and books. The trip, although cheap, was quite long about five hours to Oostende, another four to five for the crossing to Dover and a further two until Victoria station.

[Ed: That’s why it was cheap!]
Yes could be it. 

On boarding the train at Cologne I found an empty compartment and so took the window seat facing the front of the train. I have no preferences concerning seats but I think one should be looking in the direction one is going, saves a lot of bruising in the long run. 
At Aachen, about an hour into the journey, I became company. 
A girl took the seat opposite mine and a couple sat on my side next to the door. I’m giving you some idea of the layout at this point before the first act unfolds.. 

I struck up a conversation with ‘the girl’; I don’t remember the content, just a pleasant dialogue. We didn’t get so far as to exchange names hence ‘the girl’ and I don’t think I had remembered it anyway as I would be focused on other things for the rest of the journey.
Act 1, Scene 1
The train stopped at Brussels and as we were moving off gathering momentum the door to the compartment was thrust open and a small man in a dark blue uniform, which I suspect was of the railway company, entered carrying a pink case. I think all present did a double take, not the last one for me that day I might add. Pink and this gestalt in blue just did not go together. He asked if the seat next to the door (diagonally opposite to me) was free. We all looked at each and in sync mumbled something positive with a few shrugged shoulders thrown in. With this he placed the case in the rack over said seat and with all eyes upon him, instead of sitting down (you never could tell), he left the compartment ‘toute suite’. 

One must remember that in those days the leaving of unlooked after packages was no reason for panic, so we didn’t see any reason to make a collective run for it. Today anything which hasn’t moved within 5 minutes of its own accord has to be reported to at least 3 independent authorities within the following 5 minutes or else you’re carted off and thrown in the slammer for not panicking and starting a riot.

Anyway we wouldn’t have had the time; there he was back again, with 2 pink cases and a middle aged woman in tow. The new cases were placed up next to the old and the woman slumped down in the corner seat. The man acknowledged the woman’s thanks with a nod and a touch to his cap, the door closed and after a moment we were back in the routine of minding our own businesses. The train jogged on in the direction of the coast and as if a silent diner gong had sounded all the occupants started to unpack their respective eatables and drinkables. While muffing my mothers’ cheese and pickle sandwiches (she was quite mad at me for taking them as I found out on my return), I took the chance to have a deco at the latest addition to my ’compartmentees’.
What struck me about Josephine, as I later found out Jo’s name was, was that on all ten fingers she had large wide surfaced rings with ornamental designs. From a distance they looked Celtic in origin. The rings were so large that I would have thought they would have restricted any extreme finger waging, also they were the colour of silver and I suspected they were.
[Ed: This an example not Jo's original.]

Act 1, Scene 2
As not to seem rude I turned back and started up again a conversation with ‘the girl’. She was German that I remember, and spoke English which was good because my German was non-existent at this time. We got around to the boat crossing and praying for calm weather. Up to this point there was a constant noise issuing from our ‘pink cased silver ringed lady’, either she was rummaging around in one of her bottomless handbags or unpacking various colourful packages which looked like the leftovers from a ill-timed Christmas party (remember it was May). With the mention of the boat, all sounds from her corner abruptly stopped and I thought I heard a low gasp. I looked in her direction and got the impression that she had frozen in mid-rummaging and the colour had drained from her face. 

As I knew she could speak English - she had thanked the porter so - and I also knew she was from across the pond – the accent had given it away - I asked her what was wrong. With a shaky voice she asked what this boat crossing was all about. I asked her if London was her destination and she confirmed this. Without trying to sound detrimental, I explained that as Britain was an island there was a strip of water in our way. Also I mentioned that boats where predestined as the optimal method of aquatic transport for this up and coming leg of the journey. She seemed to take this in and after a moments pause blurted out “no tunnel?

I had another double take – a what?

Act 1, Scene 3
Then it all came out, in her home town Metlakatla, which turned out to be in Alaska not Mexico as the name suggested to me at the time..
[Ed: Metlakatla is from Maxłakxaała, a Tsimahian word meaning 'Salt Water Passage'.]
Now what was that all about?
[Ed: Just shows you what the Internet is good for.]

?? .. the travel agent had informed her - get ready for it - that there was a tunnel between the Continent and Britain and that she wouldn’t need to put her thalassophobia to the test. Also as an added benefit the train - she was told - would shorten the land journey before flying home. It turned out she was aviophobic to boot! I really had the urge to look around for the hidden camera. No, this just could not be true, but the genuine panic in her eyes told me that it was!

In the name of the British and French governments I apologised to Jo for the lack of a subterranean alternative route for her passage. I also informed her that the boat would be a really big one and that she would hardly see any water, especially if she kept under deck and her eyes closed. But I could see that in no way was this going to help her nerves. 
I left Jo to stew a while, but still kept an eye on her. The effect of having to cross open water looming up showed itself in that she hijacked the drinks cart every time it went by and started to tank up on little bottles of high octane. I was beginning to wonder where this would lead to. I decided to try and occupy her mind on other things. I asked her where she was from (to the majority of Europeans Metlakatla could have been anywhere) and what had brought her to Europe. 

She seemed relieved to talk, and I was informed that she was from Alaska and had just visited her relatives for the first time in years on their farm in Yugoslavia and was on her way back home via London. Also that she was an Eskimo and the rings where traditional jewellery which she had made herself from silver dollars. 
Another double take and I had an uneasy feeling that it would not be the last. I had before me a partly inebriated Yugoslavian Eskimo! 
Now that, you don’t get to see or meet every day!
[Ed: If we want to be politically correct Inuit would be a more appropriate term and Yugoslavia doesn’t exist anymore, and if we want to be even more pedantic, if she was a native of Metlakatla then she was a Tsimahian. But let’s not get all Entomological about it.]
True, Yugoslavian Eskimo has a certain ring to it. For this writing I looked for Metlakatla using Goggle earth, I landed on an island! With reflection I can’t quite understand why she lived on an island if she was afraid of open water! Maybe our water is wetter or more aggressive than the Pacific, perplexing to say the least. 

Well, we chatted on for a while and she seemed to quieten down somewhat. When we finally reached Oostende, she started to panic again; I just could not leave her to her own devices in this state and offered her company on the boat, and onto London. This was readily accepted. Eyeing the three pink cases, and my own rucksack, I saw no problem in carting cases and supporting a tipsy Tsimahian onto the boat. 

How wrong I was – oh how wrong I was…

Interlude 1

Till this day I just cannot understand how anyone could tell such a cock and ball story to sell a ticket. Of course it could have been someone who genuinely believed that the information about a tunnel was correct, we will never know. It’s funny that now, at the time of telling, we have a tunnel, but then, the original plans of Christopher Wren from 1600 and something, were still gathering dust in a London vault and it would be another 20 years before I would be sitting in my car for the 20 minute tunnelling experience and not a drop of watery substances insight, apart from in a plastic bottle under the seat. 

[Ed: If it’s under the seat you can’t see it either!]  
I know I know..
[Ed: but..]
I said leave it!!!..