THE COMPANIONS and the journey to France
First of all, there were two sisters who decorated the immediate foreground in no uncertain manner. A pair of brief shorts each provided plenty of visual interest and a definite aid to the decor. Next was a dark looking he-man in khaki drill, who became known throughout the trip as Darkie. Unoriginal but clear, I felt. There was a couple of ladies from Bradford who immediately recognised in me a fellow Yorkshireman and accosted me with the warmth which is our county’s greatest attribute.
In the background could be heard the voices of a Welsh quartet, female, who kept us continuously conspicuous with their exuberant chatter. Besides these was a lady nick named Bristol, three chaps whose origins I could not identify at all and a married couple who dashed up at the last moment, the husband fussing about like a mother hen, from which I assumed he was not going on this trip.
We piled aboard our train at about 9.25 a.m. and away we went on time. Conversation was difficult to maintain, owing to the noisiness of the Southern Railways’ trains and we rode to Newhaven without exchanging much more than minor pleasantries.
Arriving at Newhaven, we were checked out by Customs before clambering aboard and then settling down on the boat deck. Scotty, as he became known, a tall, lanky individual from Glasgow, joined me and we settled comfortably together to nap across the Channel. I had been recommended to stave off seasickness by imbibing freely of ale before the boat got far out so Scotty and I immediately adjourned to the bar. A couple of glasses having been safely lowered, we felt ourselves to be adequately safeguarded against La Grippe and we returned to the boat deck to lie and converse for a while. Various people were sick, some of them very noisily, but Scotty and I experienced no qualms at all, which we of course attributed to the effectiveness of the beer. We arrived in Dieppe much relieved and in good spirits.
Dieppe appeared to be in a highly disreputable state and looked extremely dismal. Our outlook matched it when we were compelled to line up outside the Customs Office for inspection. Fortunately, the checking was not as long as I had anticipated and we were soon ready to board the train.
At this point we discovered that Peter, our leader, was nowhere to be found. However, we found what we suspected was our carriage, dumped our rucksacks on it and dispersed in search of tea. A panic ensued when we did find Peter because three of the girls had gone missing and no-one could remember whether they had expressed the intention of leaving the train for tea or not. With much weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth, Peter began to lament the sheep that were lost and refused to be comforted. It was not until the train was well out of the station that the girls reappeared and the furrow disappeared from his brow. We were to see that furrow at regular intervals during the rest of the trip. A bit of a worrier, was Peter.
Scotty embarked upon the perilous journey down train, with a view to getting some tea and I tagged hopefully along. It was a broiling hot day and it seemed that all the passengers were out in the corridor. After much pushing, shoving, sweating and muttered swearing, we reached the dining car only to find a queue had already formed. As the queue moved, we entered the dining car, which was reminiscent of early American trains from the films, so blatant were the many advertisements that met our eyes and we could not help feeling a little overwhelmed.
Bristol came out with dismal news of exorbitant prices and poor offerings of food. It appeared we also needed bread coupons, a point which only Bristol had remembered. By dint of cajoling and downright begging, we persuaded the good natured lass to lend us some of hers and took her back with us to indulge, if that is the word, in another meal.
Tea was a pretty grim affair, consisting of a slice of semi-cremated bread, a carton of apricot jam (never my favourite), an omelette which stank to high heaven of dried egg and a cup of milkless tea. While we were consuming this unappetising selection of foodstuffs, and I use the word with some trepidation, an official came round stamping passports and distributing bread coupons.
Grumbling mightily, we paid up 124 francs for this repast and two coupons for the crust of bread. Then came the heart rending trek back to our carriage, where the girls had settled in to good purpose. Scotty abandoned me in a most cowardly manner, leaving me unsupported against overwhelming odds. As might have been expected, I was “put on” in no uncertain terms and became a light porter, hoisting bags from the rack and back up again whenever the ladies desired anything from their packs. It was enough to make me take up smoking just to be able to join him in the smoking carriages. It was a thankful Norman who reached Paris.
My first introduction to France’s capital was most disappointing. The train did nothing to help the situation when it stopped in a particularly gruesome looking tunnel. Even when we emerged into daylight, we were not given the opportunity to look around. Peter instantly shepherded his flock by dashing us off madly towards the Paris tube (Metro) which was to transport us to Austerlitz, which, it appears, is one of Paris’ many stations.
This was my first ever tube journey and hectic in the extreme. Peter fairly raced along between platforms at a terrific speed, whilst we trailed along behind him as best we could, boiling with sweat and well nigh exhausted. In addition, we were dying of thirst and, when we reached our destination, we were once more shooed onto a train without pause for refreshment. Rebellion was in out hearts but Peter reassured us that, once we had got our seats, we would have ample time to get a drink. Accordingly, we traipsed (Old Yorkshire expression) down the seemingly endless platform and Peter, like the efficient general he is, found us seats by dint of brow beating each and every official with whom he came in contact.
We tossed coins to see who should stay in the carriage in charge of the kit and Jack, a young chap with a moustache, lost. Darkie, or Keith, as we now know he is called, and I went forth to collect Scotty and decided for the buffet. Beer in the buffet was going great guns with the other passengers but, having drunk a glass apiece, we couldn’t see why it should. It hadn’t even the strength of hop bitters. We agreed to try lemonade but, finding, with some relief, that the stock had run out, we bought soda water. We bought a bottle to last the rest of the journey and made our way slowly back down the train.
The remainder of the journey was a nightmare, with only the uncomfortable French seats to lie back on. Jack gave up and slept on the floor leaving me with the dubious pleasure of stretching fully out along the seat. The night dragged on …