Postcard from Calais

Dear Bill

Remember Calais, Bill? You said it was full of cement and shell-suits, which is kind of why I’m here, being a fan of the former (I just like how hard it is) and an advocate of the latter (as an alternative to prison).

You also said that you took a coffee on the Rue de Gaston Papin. In a bid to retrace your steps (I’m bored, Bill), I asked a local shopkeeper where I might find such a road. She answered with a look (unique to the French) that suggested both acute xenophobia and genuine concern, before telling me that such a road almost certainly doesn’t exist, on account of Rue de Gaston Papin meaning, in French, the Road of the Forgetful Squid, or something equally unlikely.

I’ve got to say, Bill, I was pretty wound up. I thumped my copy of Notes from a Small Island (know it?) against the counter, unhinged by its author’s playful handling of truth. If you were fibbing about Gaston Papin, Bill, what else were you fibbing about? Does Milton Keynes even exist? I put this question to the shopkeeper, who, after blowing her nose, told me to leave.

I recovered my composure by eating an orange on the Place d’Armes, before making my way up the Rue Royal towards the Hotel de Ville. You didn’t make it up there, did you Bill, on account of it being a bit of a ‘long slog’? Long slog? Bill. Please. It took about five minutes. The only way it could possibly constitute a long slog is if you’re sixteen inches tall, and have a back complaint.

In front of the hotel (which is delightful) is a sculpture by Auguste Rodin (I think he’s famous), depicting a bunch of fourteenth-century Frenchmen looking annoyed that an Englishman (Edward III, also famous) could have the temerity to pinch their city. The fact that it was Trafalgar Day (when Nelson roughed-up Napoleon etc.), and the fact that I had just been condescended to by a French shopkeeper, made me want to challenge a passing Gaul to an arm wrestle (either arm).

I ate some chips and drank two bottles of Stella Artois (as you did, sir) and then asked the waitress how to get to the ferry terminal, knowing very well the trouble you had finding it. She issued a volley of eloquent, and no doubt instructive, French words, which (in a fashion unique to the British) I pretended to understand perfectly (lots of gormless nodding), when, in fact, I understood nothing.

I reasoned that the ferry terminal must be near the water (pretty sharp, me), and so headed for the beach, where I found a pensive teenager chain-smoking electronic cigarettes and whispering philosophical maxims to a point in the middle distance. I pointed to the bundle of cranes and freight containers yonder and said, skilfully, and in French, ‘Boat?’ He shrugged six times, gave me the same look the shopkeeper had, and then quoted a line of Jean Jacques Rousseau, who once said, or so I’m led to believe, ‘In autumn there is hope’, which I understood to mean that he wasn’t at all sure.  I challenged him to an arm wrestle; he shrugged another six times and then beat me twice, once with each arm.

I found the ferry without further ado (how did you get into such a pickle?) and took up vigil on the smoking deck. Trafalgar Day was bidding adieu, and as the coconut cliffs of Dover began to draw up from the channel’s dark soup (I’m a poet, me), I rubbed my sore triceps and laughed noisily, feeling a sharp pang of privilege to be on these waves and under this sky, and at the dawn of what promises to be a precious journey around a small island. (What’s the deal with copyright, by the way?)

Your disciple,