The Cornet Player
It was cold in the carriage and the air heavy and musty with human smell. It seemed like the tenth time we had stopped and each time we stopped the ventilation and heating stopped. Sleet was falling outside and the dark country side looked pale and miserable. The seats were too narrow for my tall frame so the best I could do was to snatch a few minutes sleep here and there, even though I was dog tired. I had no idea why we were hours late, my French was poor and quite incapable of soliciting such information from my fellow passengers. Earlier stumbling inquiries had simply met with a Gallic shrug. Perhaps they thought I was English and so would not speak English to me anyway. Or perhaps they were just as exhausted as me after their weekend in Paris with the added disadvantage of having to be at work in the morning when, and if, we arrived in Dunkirk. At least I might be able to get a few hours sleep on the ferry before Dover. I was cramped again and tried to ease it by pushing my legs against the seat in front. Why are the seats so close together?
I realised at once the answer to my unspoken rhetorical question, Europeans are short. I had got accustomed to it in the last couple of years but I recalled my first weeks in London when I felt like Gulliver in Lilliput. I suppose I am tall but I can not recall having noticed it in particular at home. Still it was useful over here to be able to see easily over the heads of all around, I did not feel quite so hemmed in.
Why was that guy playing the cornet? Does he know it is three o'clock in the morning? The train has started to move again which is a relief, a little fresh air at last. People smell so different here. I reckon I could tell the English, Germans and French apart by their smell with my eyes closed. I know they do not shower as much but then you do not need to in these climates so it must be what they eat. The English are sort of mouldy like damp shirts stored in a plastic bag and I hardly notice it now. Except at the football or in the tube.
I will have to do something about that bloke and his damn cornet. It has not woken my daughter which is something. But then nothing much disturbs you when you are two. Strange how much the French like children. Because we had her in a pram, instead of waiting in the customs line that appeared to be a mile long and stationary, a gendarme shepherded us out of the queue and up to the front of the line. The customs officer even spoke to us in English as soon as he looked at our passports and realised we were Australian not English. Odd how the French can suddenly speak English when they discover you are not English. And they can understand a lot more of my very poor French when they find out that I am not English.
That cornet really is very irritating. The passengers around me are restless but no one does anything. I suppose it is because Europe is full of people. With that many people all living on top of one another you need order and conformity to avoid chaos, the best citizens are hard working, law abiding and with no imagination or originality. You can not afford to have too many people swimming across the tide of humanity disrupting its smooth flow. Or worse still try to swim upstream. That is why the English queue and the French mutter, the silent disapproval of the majority suppressing the out of step minority. The people of the old world consider themselves the progenitors of civilisation as we know it, but this civilisation is a veneer of high gloss over a pulp wood core, a core of little strength or durability. The beauty is literally skin deep.
The cornet plays on. I must have drifted off to sleep for a moment until its notes jolted me back to wakefulness. The train is still moving and the sleet has cleared. We slide past geometric fields with neat hedgerows and fences of stone. Nature is allowed to prosper here as long as it conforms to the requirements of two thousand years of European man. Nature that did not conform has long since disappeared, almost before written history and so long ago that Europeans consider these fields and woods to be nature. The conservationists, young and well intentioned fight to preserve an environment as artificial as the cities in which they live. Perhaps their acid rain will wipe it all out so that nature can start again.
A farm house drifts past the lights of the train bouncing off its shuttered walls. I can not recall having stood anywhere in France or England and not been able to see a building. The only aloneness these people can ever feel is the desperation from within, loneliness not aloneness. Soon the dawn will come to reveal the soft pastel shades of Constable or Monet, the light dimmed by mist or rain and the sun never being overhead. Not for these people the bright clarity and sharp shadow of an ancient land untouched by hand.
The cornet has driven someone to their feet, someone as big as me. He leans over the cornet player and says, in an accent harsh music to my ears,
"If you don't stop playing that bloody trumpet I'll ram the bloody thing so far down your throat that you'll need surgery to remove it!"
The cornet stops abruptly, the player sensing the meaning of the words rather than understanding them. His intimidator turns and I see written on his jacket "Bondi S.L.S.C.".
I think it is time I went home.