Thursday, 26 May 2011

the old man with the green bag on the train

The French high speed train stops at the station. The door opens. An old man steps in with a groan, carrying a large, worn rectangular canvas green bag. He's wearing shorts and a fluorescent sleeveless jacket. His skin is burnt a cherry red brown. There's an ugly whiff of old sweat, unwashed skin. He barks his destination at me. I answer and when he replies - in English- "Excellent", we get talking. He has a strange dent in his forehead, the size of a bullet, bloodshot red eyes. We chat about Spain, where he lives part of each year and France, where I live for all of each year.
"It's a cruel world now", he says, "There's no empathy, no kindness".
"I like your bag", I say, "Did you make it?"
He explains that he's had the green canvas bag for over twenty years. It contains his bike, a sleeping bag, a small tent and a change of shoes. "I'm in my late seventies", he says, "Every year I cycle the 800 miles between my house in Spain and a French port, to get the boat back to England. I've been on the road since March, but it got too hot, so I took the train". He wheezes, wipes bloodshot eyes with a crumpled checked handkerchief.
He describes how he cycles through the mountains, uses the pass where the pilgrims walk, "los peligrinos", he says in Spanish. "Saint Jacques de Compostelle", I say in French. He's been riding along the same mountain pass for over twenty-five years,
"I've met so many strange folk on that road. Last time, there were two Dutch women from Holland. They were pulling a cart by hand. I told them it's sixteen miles up that mountain. They just laughed. Sturdy they were".
When we arrive at the station, we get off together. "I'll just wind my way up to a campsite"he says with a smile. In the hazy brilliant orange light, I drive home, thinking of the old man and his rectangular green canvas bag.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

the old lady in the waiting room

It is nearly ten o'clock at night. In the station waiting room an old lady sits next to a small red suitcase, eating blueberries from a plastic box. She places them, one by one, inside her mouth, nips off the stalk. Munches. Grabs another. Her jaw quivers. She holds the plastic box of blueberries on her lap on a plastic bag, that she's removed from inside another plastic bag. She folds the bags, with decisive yet trembling gestures, puts them in her suitcase for a later date. The bags look reused, as though they have travelled round the world, visited Peru and the African plains. She looks at me across the empty room. I am eating a salad from inside my own plastic bag, with a spare spoon that I carry for such occasions. I have a paper napkin spread over my lap, to catch the crumbs from a bread roll that I took from the hotel breakfast buffet. We bite, chew and swallow in two separate rhythms. A homeless man walks in, betrayed by worn shoes. When he leaves, she looks up at me, with watery blue eyes, "Has he gone?", "Yes", I reply. " No fear, god will protect us" she says, crocking an ear to catch my words. As she shows me her ticket, I discover she has missed her train, that the last one is leaving in only two minutes. I rush her down to the platform, through lifts and escalators, bundle her onto the high speed train. She suddenly asks me, "What is your name?", when I answer she replies, "I'll pray for you".