In the festering criminal toilet that is Paris Gare du Nord, I looked at the board for the Eurostar and noted the time. I was in the most savage of moods and not hiding it well. If I went through passport control like this, they’d chuck me in jail. I needed some air.
Stepping out of the glass-covered annex and onto the Rue de Dunkerque, I saw a man break off from a group and amble over. He fell in beside me, matching my pace, while playing with a folded banknote in the palm of a dirty brown hand.
“Taxi? Where you go?” he said.
He looked more con artist than taxi driver. You could be sure he’d not understand the word “meter” whatever language you tried, and he’d be tragically short of change, even for a ten-Euro note. He turned away when I shook my head. A young African with a pointy beard looked at me twice before addressing me in French. I ignored him by staring vacantly across the street at hotels whose windows hadn’t been cleaned since de Gaulle was in charge. Groups of tourists sat on the pavement eating sandwiches around clustered suitcases. One of them was shouting at a tough-looking Chinese woman who’d kicked her as she walked past. If it was accidental, she didn’t look too sorry about it. Two men of Slavic appearance hovered like a pair of crows, one wearing three-stripe tracksuit bottoms and the other filthy denims, speaking in low voices and looking up to no good. More men loitered, assuredly with intent, and one peeled himself away from a wall and approached me. Turning around to avoid him, I nearly collided with a scooter that was moving too fast along the sidewalk, ridden by a pale youth talking on the phone. A row of standing stone figures on the station’s facade watched matters below with swords and shields to hand. I wondered if they ought not step down occasionally and put them to use.
The sun was warm and I raised my face towards it and closed my eyes, hoping the rays would induce some calm to counteract the fury within me.
“Hello sir, what’s your name?” It was another African, holding out his hand.
“Oh, f**k off!” I said and went back inside.
The French immigration officer waved me through after a brief glance at my passport, utterly uninterested in who was leaving his country. A lengthy queue had formed at British immigration, and I wondered how a simple process could take so long. As we inched forward at the pace of a snail, my frustration grew. I was perspiring, a cold, nasty sweat that comes from distress rather than heat. Eventually I arrived at the red line and waited while an overweight man in an ill-fitting nylon suit and greasy tie took an age to process the person in front. It would be my turn next.
The officer looked at my passport and studied me carefully. He seemed to pick up on something.
“How long have you been in France?” he asked, flicking through the pages.
“Since last night.”
“What was the purpose of your trip.”
I thought for a second, annoyed by the question. “I’ve been trying to work that out since I got here.”
“I’m going to ask you again. What—”
“I came to meet someone.”
“The daughter of a Russian diplomat.”
“What was the nature of your meeting?”
“We never met.” I was skating on thin ice, but it felt good to take out my anger on someone, especially a pompous authority figure.
“Look, I need you to answer the questions and—”
“It wasn’t official, if that’s what you’re thinking. She’s someone I know, and I came to talk to her, but she didn’t want to see me, so now I’m going home. That’s all there is to it.”
He stared at me again, and I thought about asking why he was wearing a hi-viz vest. There was a time when they were worn only by people doing jobs that were dangerous, manual, or both. Checking documents in a glass booth in a railway station didn’t seem like either. He ran my passport through the scanner and looked at the screen, then handed it back to me without a word. I was almost disappointed.
The security check, when compared with the pantomime ubiquitous to airports, was mercifully brief, and I avoided arrest and torture. Perhaps they saw I was spoiling for a fight, but more probably they didn’t even notice. At the door of the business lounge I silently showed my ticket to an assistant, who waved me in with a few words of French. I took out my iPad from my backpack and sat down. With a dry mouth and a nauseating feeling of anticipation, I checked my email, and in the time it took to load, I imagined a message I so desperately wanted.
I checked my phone for messages, pathetically hoping I’d missed a beep in the noise of the station.
Sinking further into angry depression, I rehearsed conversations in my head that I wanted to have but never would. I tried to eat a sandwich I’d bought earlier, but it was dry and felt thick in my mouth, and it wasn’t the fault of the baker. After two more bites I gave up even though I was still hungry. A bottle of juice went down more easily. People nearby were looking at me strangely, and I wondered if I’d been talking to myself out loud. That sometimes happened, and I’d get that look. I didn’t care.
Sickening thoughts spewed forth in my head, violent acts carried out by a stranger on the target of my hate, while I looked on, unmoved. A coward’s revenge, the fantasy of choice for those who know they are wrong or don’t fancy doing a decade inside.
A voice called my name, and I looked up and saw a slim woman with black hair and wide cheekbones coming toward me.
“Elvira!” I said, standing up and smiling for the first time that day.
“Hello!” she said.
She wore a blue summer dress and carried a Louis Vuitton handbag, which looked too big for her, and as I said hello and kissed her cheek, I caught a whiff of perfume.
I turned to the man who was with her. “How are you, Markus?” I asked as we shook hands. He was tall, like most Dutchmen, with straight hair parted to one side and a classically handsome face of the type you see on aftershave adverts. Even the pink sweater draped across his shoulders looked good on him.
“I’m fine,” he said, with a smile that showed a row of straight white teeth. “How are you?”
“I’m okay,” I lied. “This is a coincidence. What are you doing in Paris?”
“We were in Nice,” Elvira said. “Just a short break. We flew down on Monday and took the train here on Thursday. We’re on our way back to London now. What about you? What are you doing here?”
I let the question hang as I thought of an answer. “I’m not really sure,” I said finally. “I came here last night and drank myself silly in a bar full of strangers. I woke up early, took a walk down to Concorde and through Tuileries to the Louvre, then wondered what the hell I was doing so decided to get the next train home.”
“Why?” Elvira asked as confusion gave way to concern. “What happened?”
“How long have you got?” I said bitterly, my cheerful facade falling away.
They glanced at each other as if quietly agreeing to adopt a sick puppy. “Which carriage are you in?” Markus asked, looking at the tickets clutched in his hand. Boarding had started already.
“We’re in three, the next one along. Come and join us. We’re at a table, and the other seats might not be taken.” He looked around. “It doesn’t look busy, so wait until we’re moving, and come to our carriage.”
“Okay,” I said, attempting a smile. Underneath my misery I was pleased; I needed company badly.
As the train pulled away, I moved to the carriage where Elvira and Markus were sitting. My luck was in, but perhaps not theirs, as both seats opposite were vacant.
“Hello again,” I said, trying to be jolly. I put my bag overhead and sat at the window, directly across from Elvira. I looked at them both but said nothing, unsure of where to begin.
“So what happened?” Elvira said, prompting me.
“I met a woman. A Russian.”
“Online, on a dating site.”
Markus gave me a funny look. “Really?”
“I’m afraid so.” I looked at them both. “Are you sure you want to hear this? It could take a while, and it’s a bit f**ked up.”
“Yes, tell us,” said Elvira. She was highly strung and worried too much but was kindhearted and possessed an almost infinite curiosity that made her a good listener. Markus was much like his wife.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll start at the beginning.”