Chapter 5 The Road To The Sun
I had to leave Paris, today, I kept telling myself, or I would succumb to the cold or the assaults. It was my third morning to wake up shivering under snow, and two days since I’d landed at Charles De Gaulle from Dublin and blew more than half of my runaway funds in the process. I had to try, at least one last time, to track down the employment center all my guides assured me was right under my nose, and preferably by lunchtime, or I would be left with just two options. Go south, or go home. Which was really just one option.
The gendarme seemed to agree, and I had just drifted off again to the lullaby of shivers when the first blow landed. “Alo? Monsieur?” It wasn’t so much a blow as a light tap of a baton but it was right on the top of my shoulder on the bony part and it woke me up instantly.
“Alo?” Another voice, a different one, and this one more urgent. I thought for a second about reaching for one of the three knives I had secreted around my body but realized that even the slightest movement would give away the fact that I was still alive. So instead I chose to lie very still and hope that my wake-up call would take a kinder view of a sleeping tramp and let him sleep just a little longer.
Then came the second blow. More of a poke really but enough to knock most of the remaining snow off my plastic bag and make me flinch a little. The gig was up because they now knew I was awake, or at least alive. I thought for just another second about the consequences of continuing to play dead but I felt sure it would only lead to more tapping and poking. Or worse.
Very cautiously, I worked my head out of the plastic bag that served as my entire home for the last three nights. It took me a couple of seconds to adjust to the brightness of the snow-washed dawnish daylight and realize that my dawn greeter was the very same policeman who had woken me up at almost the very same time and in exactly the same place as yesterday.
But I could immediately tell today was different. He wasn’t smiling as broadly. At all, in fact. Yesterday he began his wake up call in much the same way, but when he saw that I was completely unaware of what he was saying to me, he asked me if I was a tourist, and when I nodded and Ouied that I most certainly was, he smiled, wished my bon chance, and went about on his morning patrol.
It never dawned on me that he probably had the very same patrol route, at more or less the same time every day, and probably for the last twenty or so years. So there we were again. Except this time he really wanted me to find somewhere else to sleep other than a bench on a bandstand on the south side of the Champs Elysees.
I still had no idea what he was saying but language was not never a barrier in conversations like this. I knew exactly what he was suggesting and I made it very clear that as long as he didn’t poke me again with his baton, this would probably be our final encounter.
It had been little more than 72 hours since I’d run away from home, and I anticipated that my parents would assume that instead of flying, I would take the much cheaper and longer ferry ride either through England or directly to France. And have the police or routiers watching those ports. And I was right. They even sent an alert with a photograph to the routiers in case I decided to avoid trains too and hitch the motorways instead. And they were right about that too but just a little late.
It was March and I was seventeen years old. Spring in Paris was just around the corner but until we made it to the corner it was still Winter, still freezing and snowing and blustery and almost impossible to stay warm in a doorway or a park bench or even under a graveyard headstone like that first night.
It had taken me nearly three months to plan my escape, and I had made it all the way to the center of Paris without the slightest suspicion or interruption. The escape was funded mainly from working up three nights every week for nearly months as an apprentice glass and bog washer at Sardis nightclub in Stillorgan.
I’d convinced my parents that I was babysitting for some local families who, for some reason, suddenly seemed unable to get enough of my child-minding skills. And if they noticed that each night I came home from watching young children with clothes that reeked of lager, piss, and fags, they never mentioned it.
In order to keep the business and its dwindling estate alive, the banks forced my father to make one of the toughest decisions in his more than a decade running the Crock – to sell the remaining land around the crock, the front fields, including the gate lodge and all the way up to twenty feet from the front door of the main house. The land went to a local builder who had no trouble securing planning permission to build nearly 40 identical breeze block homes on the land where dairy herds had grazed for more than a thousand years.
The farm was gone too, Mr. O’Malley, the cows, and Rock. The old outbuildings had all been torn down and what remained of the cow sheds sold to a packaging business. There was little left between the Crock and the outside world now. We could feel their breath, they were close enough to look in our windows, even with the 12-foot-high prison wall erected to hold them back.
The Crock was still alive, though with barely a pulse. With the land and half the factory gone, along with Alice the housekeeper and some of the other employees, much of the magic had left with them. Struggling with the early signs of dementia, and compounded with an almost complete loss of hearing, Francie had relinquished most of her daily role in the business and had retreated to her bedroom at the top of the house. Everyone was in shock. My parents told us little about what was going on or what would happen next, so it was left to my imagination.
I was sure that by the time I set foot in France someone in the house would have found the brief note I left on my pillow “I’ve got to go, I’m sorry, I’ll explain later. I’ll be OK.” My mother would scream and cry and then drop to her knees and grab for her rosary beads, and my father probably curse up a storm, or worse, stay completely silent as he formulated a plan to come looking for me. Or not bother at all.
Towards the end of the first day, I was still so exhilarated to be in this magnificent city full of its own grand mansions and estates, and at the start of such an exciting palingenesis, that I plucked up the courage to do something I’d never done before. I spoke to a girl I didn’t know. She was handing out fliers on the Quai D’Orsay and I asked her if she spoke English and could tell me where the job center was.
She spoke a little English, enough to raise my spirits just a little. She apologized that she really had no idea where the job center was, but that there might be one in the 11th arrondissement. As she tried vainly to explain what that was and where, and I pretended to understand her directions, she seemed genuinely sorry she couldn’t help me.
Then I realized that she really intended for me to catch her eye because she suggested that instead of wandering around Paris in the cold and looking for a job in Winter, she could set me up with a job handing out the same communist propaganda she had in the floral bag slung around her neck.
It didn’t take me but a few yards to realize that I really shouldn’t have said no, and I spat at myself for it. The better answer might at least have earned me a friend, a meal, and even a dry shelter for a night. But by the time I returned to where we met the D’Orsay crowd had taken her.
I hadn’t planned to stay in Paris more than a couple of days before heading south across the Spanish border and then west towards Portugal. And I had no intention of finding a job and settling in Paris. That would hardly be much of an adventure. But with most of my funds already depleted by a plane ride, I needed to find some quick ways to replenish them.
My schoolfriend Joao still had family in a little town in the middle of Portugal and just up the road from Fatima. He told me I could stay there, maybe even get a job at a local bar in a tiny dusty mountain town where there were no tourists. And even a good and stable start to my new life in a warmer climate. But even after just a few days in the greatest city of romance ever I was worried that I wouldn’t have enough money to make it to Portugal.
Or if I did make it, not enough to keep me until I found a job and some income. Which made a quick and easy job in Paris such an obvious solution. It might delay my forward progress and my journey towards the sunshine, but it would be worth it. I needed some financial peace, and so did my growling belly. And I was in Paris.
I also quickly realized that the traveling fashions I had given so much careful thought to for months before my departure were much more for appearances than benefit. And while I truly felt I gave the impression of being a road-hardened nomad, nothing I wore turned out to be a match for a brutal French winter.
The bright red polar fleece had no polar genes whatsoever, and let even the smallest breeze glide through it like it was a string vest. It became an even bigger threat when saturated and soggy from either too much snow or rain, or at night and from within, too much condensation from the plastic bag I slept in.
On my head, a leather cowboy hat, and on my feet, a pair of worn leather boots with a hole in the left sole and donated by Joao. The boots were loose and ran so far up my legs I had turned the tops down a few inches so that I looked like a Musketeer. A look I now hoped the French would recognize and appreciate. Even if the large open gaps at the top let in so much rain I could barely feel my feet anymore.
Around my waist, a brightly covered traditional woven Irish belt called a Crios and almost unique to the fishing families of the Aran islands. According to legend, each crios was woven in a pattern so unique to each family, if a fisherman were ever lost at sea he might be easier to identify if recovered. Rounding off the look and the most visible features of all, on my back a bright orange and overfilled backpack used to hang the crowning glory of my travelling look – a Spanish guitar.
I hadn’t really mastered the guitar yet, and it wasn’t really mine anyway. But I had managed to figure out a handful of chords and thought that with all the time I’d have on the roadside to practice, I might eventually become good enough that it would pay for my travels for as long as I felt like traveling. So clearly I had an adult plan for my travels, a way to sustain myself. And most important of all, I looked completely believable. My act, my performance, my costume, perfectly coordinated for the long adventure ahead.
My home on the road and for the foreseeable future was called a karrimor, a dazzling bright orange plastic survival bag that the sales assistant in Alpha Bargains by the Halfpenny Bridge assured me was much more than just a bag, and was in fact highly favored by mountain climbers and expeditionists as a last resort for survival when stranded on a snowy peak.
But Paris was proving, each frigid night, that it was really just the most expensive garbage bag I had ever purchased. It did very well at protecting from the wind, but the warmth of the bag was cancelled out by the consequences of that warmth, a constant, relentless oozing of condensation from my own body that made everything wetter, colder, and more unbearable.
But it was more complicated than that. How would I even get home? There was no way I could just sneak on to a train at Gare Du Nord, I was simply too cumbersome and brightly colored to escape attention. Even if I did make it on to a train, I’d still have to hide from the conductors all the way to the coast, and then do the same all over again for a ferry across the English channel, yet another set of trains across England and Wales and then a ferry all over again.
It was much too complicated and little chance for success anyway. A better option might be to hike to the western outskirts of the city, find a motorway or a truckstop, and try to hitch a ride with a trucker who might also be able to sneak me across the channel. But that was at least a half a day’s walk and with little guarantee of success either. It could leave me stranded even further from my dream and with a truckstop on a motorway as my backdrop instead of the lights and bandstands and parks of the Champs Elysees.
The light snow flurries gave way to rain, then to heavier rain, and the wind started to pick up. Whatever I decided to do, I had to start by walking. To keep warm, to find shelter, food, and a decision.