Night Journey (1981)

The Darkest Hour

I’m on the overnight train to Basel. I prefer to use the German spelling, as I was at that time living in the German speaking part of Switzerland. I’d crossed the channel, been through Customs at Calais and found a window seat on the train waiting at the dockside platform. The journey from Calais to Basel takes most of the night – there’s no hurry as it’s collecting mail from a number of stations along the route – and arrives at six in the morning. I was prepared to rough it, dozing in my corner.

The route lies along the edge of northern France, bordering Flanders. It’s the country you hear about in tales of the First World War. Now the land has been smoothed, the bomb craters filled, the fields back under cultivation. What hasn’t changed is the flatness. While it is still light, I can see across the unvarying flat landscape, criss-crossed with irrigation ditches, in which dark memories fade into the mist. The dull monotony of the gathering gloom draws a veil over what happened here so long ago. It’s hard to believe that really happened; the land has done its best to heal its wounds.

The train speeds through tiny hamlets where the streetlights have just come on. It’s often too quick to catch the name on the platform, but sometimes a nearby shop or direction sign gives a clue to where we are – not that I would recognise the names of the hamlets between St Omer and Hazebrouck. What fascinates me are the violet signal lamps used by SNCF – a colour I’ve not seen used on British railways. They give an eery, other-worldly touch and let me know once again, that I am in a foreign land.

The first stop is Lille. A town I’ve never visited, and know only from my old-fashioned radio dial. The train pulls into a terminus. On a neighbouring platform a local train is waiting, almost miniature, small and square, painted red and yellow, nothing like a mainline train. I wonder how claustrophobic that might be to ride. Now my train sets off again, in reverse so to speak, pulled from the other end. Complete darkness falls. In the following hours of the night, the same procedure is carried out. The train arrives at a platform full of waiting trolleys. The sudden jolt of stopping brings me out of my slumber. Under the bright working lights the station staff transfer bundles of newspapers and other goods to the freight carriages. Their shouting and clattering draw my attention to these nocturnal activities – and I watch without enthusiasm until the sheer boredom and my tiredness return me to sleep, head resting against the cold glass.

Another town, Metz, somewhere near the German border – it sounds German, and I’m reminded of Metzgerei and wonder if the town has a bustling trade in meat products. There must have been other stations where we stopped but I did not wake. Am I going forwards or backwards? Some of those stations must have been termini, where the train again changed its direction of travel. Sometimes when I look out of the window I wonder if I’m going back to England.

At six the train has arrived at Basel, and I’ve been asleep. The compartment is empty; the other passengers have gone. I rub my bleary eyes and look out. I seem to be in railway sidings, dormant trains either side of me. No station. Where am I? No proper platform, but then continental railways don’t have high platforms; you have to climb down to almost ground level. Assuming I am in Basel, I quickly gather my bags and head out into the corridor, and then open the end door to let myself down onto the concrete walkway between the looming trains. Which way to go? All I can see are carriages stretching in both directions, and neither way seems more likely than the other. I’m still half-asleep so I stumble off towards the morning light. Suddenly a railway worker calls out, asks me where I’m going. “Basel” I say stupidly. He points in the opposite direction. “Merci vielmal” I reply as I turn and head towards the station.

© Peter Young 2015

Back in the Red

The Guildhall Pillarbox has now been repainted in ‘pillarbox red’.

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