THE WHITE MAN'S GRAVEYARD
chapter 10 (1)
Alex was squatting, his feet on the footrests, diarrhoea dripping on the water pipe and even on the back of his runners. He reached for the newspaper squares hung on a bent coat-hanger, wiped it off as best he could and turned on the tap to flush it down the hole. He hated the toilets in Europe. Though civilized, Europeans did not have the Freudian anal fixation North Americans had. They did not go in for expensive bathrooms, whirlpool baths, places to spend time, read a book, relax. He cleaned up and went back outside to his table, on the sidewalk in front of Chez Henri.
Two days and he was halfway to Paris. He had thought, mistakenly again, that he might as well try hitchhiking up to Paris and Brittany and cross the channel by ferry. But at least he had the Traveller's Cheques and a young kid travelling south had just given him four metro tickets and half-pack of Gitanes. Luckily, not all Frenchmen were as impolite and unfriendly as the waiters. Something had not agreed with him. Last night he'd slept on a cot in a small run-down vine-covered cement house with religious artifacts everywhere. The elderly bald man, who had mentioned something about Christianity, lived alone there, had picked him up in an old truck at dusk and offered him a bed after they'd consumed two bottles of unlabelled local wine, probably home made. The drink, in what looked like corked gasoline bottles, had been dry and he'd woken up with a headache. He was stuck in a small village on a road with little traffic, because he'd gone off the freeway accepting the tour over Roman bridges in the countryside by a businessman in a Mercedes who had wanted to show him the valleys and hills, the old France. Now he had to get up to Paris on a string of secondary roads through the country, roads that both Roman Legions and Panzer Divisions had marched over.
He leaned against the stone wall bridge and smoked half of one of the filterless Gitanes, let it hang out of the corner of his mouth like they did and pollute his lungs like an internal combustion engine. Few cars passed.
"Bonjour. Comment ca va?"
He turned around. A girl, maybe eighteen, medium length black hair in a beret, one earring in the top of her left ear and a grey backpack lightly slung over one shoulder, looked at him with dark marble-like eyes. "Voulez-vouz?" She was eating chocolate and held out part of a large rectangular bar.
Alex carefully broke a piece off the end. "Merci. Je m'appelle Alex. Ou allez-vouz?"
"A Paris... Je vive en Paris. Est vouz?"
"Paris. Je suis Canadienne."
"Je travaille a la cite, mon pere et ma mere est en Alsace-Lorraine."
They chatted for some time, Alex managing to converse. The girl, Jeannette, invited him to stay at her apartment, gave him the address near the Ile de Cite. She would leave for Alsace-Lorraine on Saturday. It was only Wednesday. He should be there in a day, another reason to get to Paris.
"Bon voyage," she said as she walked up the road fifty feet. The first car, which looked full even, stopped for her. She waved back and got in and the loaded-down Citroen pulled away.
He stood on the road all day, throwing rocks into the river below, studying the odd barge periodically making the slim passage under the arch of the bridge with an inch of clearance. In the evening he got a ride with a medical student named Jacques, returning from vacation in Greece, and they drove into Lyon in the dark. The high rise apartment was plastered with black and white photos of friends. The student pointed out his sister amongst them and Alex took a bath and crashed on the couch.
In the morning, he opened his eyes to Jacques shaking him. He appeared pissed off. "Tabernac! Why did you not wake me?" he yelled in loud English. He had overslept and was lake for work at the hospital. Jacques was too intense. It hadn't been his fault, really, but it felt like it had been his duty since Jacques had driven so far to get back the day before. Jacques dropped him on a ramp in the middle of a series of freeways.
No breakfast. This was not good. There was no cafe in sight and four hitchhikers on the ramp also, one dressed in a monk's uniform. Now the sun came out and it was getting hot. Alex had no choice but stay there and finally got a ride about twenty kilometres up the road. That night he climbed a chain-link fence which ran the edge of the highway and slept in a field as best he could because of the distant heat lightning. He hadn't eaten, hadn't been near anywhere to buy food and his stomach was tightening with gas pains again from all this abuse being inflicted on it. He had never gone hungry in Africa, he thought ironically, but could starve in France.
At daybreak he tried hitchhiking again. He was in the middle of nowhere, on a turn-off ramp wedging the freeway. The cars sped by spinning gravel and dust and there was no cover from the torching sun and to top it off, it was windy. An overhead sign claimed Paris was 250 km. Alex got a ride another thirty kilometres and had to sleep the next night hunched under an overpass with the smell of urine.
The next day his stomach was inflicted with sharp pains again. He had money but he was stuck on the highway, nowhere near an epiciere or cafe. The Traveller's Cheques in his pockets were useless. Toward evening, a truck driver finally picked him up and he got off on a ramp on the outskirts of Paris. It was after midnight. Alex crossed the freeway, went down over a bank and crawled into the back seat of a wrecked motorless Volvo behind a petrol station. He was dirty and his hair was mangled and dusty and he hadn't eaten in more than two days on the highway. It had been no fun at all.
At dawn, before the station opened, Alex walked five kilometres down the exit road into Paris. So far, it had not been a pleasant trip. He finally found a shop just opening up and bought some bread and yogurt, easy on his stomach, and walked down cobblestone streets until he came upon the Metro stop the shop-keeper had said was there. He took the Metro to the Ile de Cite.
It was now eleven o'clock. Alex hoped she'd be there. Jeannette was leaving on Saturday he remembered. He purchased a map from a street vendor on the Left Bank and located her address not far away. He walked up to the apartment and knocked. There was no answer. He knocked again, louder. He thought most likely she must have left for Alsace-Lorraine already. He couldn't believe it had taken him three days to get there. He kicked the door casing. Another dream had been shattered. To top it off, he took off when someone shouted. He needed no trouble with the police.
Alex walked to the Latin Quarter, got a room in a two-star hotel and spent a few days eating and sleeping in comfort. He was on vacation. Enough hard travelling. He went to the Air France Office nearby and bought a plane ticket to London. He even took a taxi to the airport.
The Airbus crossed the channel and circled London in a wide arc, the city seeming to Alex a tiny Disneyland replica of a city trapped in time. They touched down at Heathrow and he disembarked and followed the stream of passengers down the corridors of the main terminal. Ethnic Londoners leaned over the barricade holding up signs, a myriad of foreign languages, for newcomers. Alex felt self-conscious that there was no one there to meet him, and proceeded unobtrusively with the flow of the passenger traffic. Near the outlet to the waiting area, he was singled out by Security and brought to a small room where they went through his pack and made him strip to his underwear, tearing open with glee the nylon passport pouch he had bought and now wore around his neck, Customs thinking they had nabbed another suspect. They sniffed at the remnants of the package of Moroccan coffee and found the perfume-shaped spray can of mace.
"I bought it in France, in a store," Alex defended.
"Well, it's illegal here." The Customs Agent seized it.
"I got it for protection, to keep from getting ripped off ... I've been living in Africa," Alex protested.
"It's not allowed. We'll keep it. Get your things. You can go."
The security boys seemed happy to let it go at that. They had found something, it was confiscated, and they were proud of their suspicions, if not getting a drug trafficker, at least of nabbing someone doing something wrong. Alex guessed they had reason to be uptight with IRA active -- any number of various terrorists.
He walked straight outside and through the tunnel and got on the Underground heading toward the centre of the city. He kept busy reading the advertisements and the graffiti on the brick walls of buildings, past endless streets of row-houses. He was content to study the orange and green-haired passengers looking like some tribe from the mountains of Gwoza, businessmen in wool suits reading their Tabloids, people getting off and on at the various platforms.
He did not look anybody in the eye. He just sat back, almost in a dream, and let the train carry him on.
Alex stepped off the Underground at Victoria Station, avoided the hustlers preying on tourists, and got an address at a Tourist Information Booth, caught a bus and finally walked up the long path toward a Hostel. His International Youth Hostel Card had been stolen and he had to buy a new one from them but he checked in for two nights as it was dusk. He wanted to get his bearings so went directly back out for supper.
He got on the tube for three stops to King's Cross and found a Pub, ordered a Shepherd's pie and a couple of pints of Guiness. He talked to no one, just listened to the three-piece punk band playing at the front.
Alex made his way back to the Underground for the three stops back to the Hostel. On the long lane up the hill, walls reached eight feet up, enclosing apartment buildings. Young men in black leather jackets leaned against the walls in the foggy dimly-lit darkness and he kept on. They obviously hung out there and he was uncomfortable. One man had his arm around another as they sat and talked on a park bench. By the time he got to the iron gate of the hostel, he had realized the path was a pick-up place for young males, but he had still been in a little worried of getting mugged though. A sign on the iron gate informed him it was locked at 11 pm but he could just make across the hundred yards that people were still milling around on the patio outside the open door of the common room. He was not going out into the night again so he walked a few steps down and climbed the fence, jumping onto the park-like grounds. He ducked through the shadows of the trees, eventually up onto the crushed rock path by the patio, and slipped inside.