Brief Encounter

The telephone trills imperiously.

In most households, the routine is simple: walk to the phone cradle, where the obedient instrument awaits, twittering subserviently until it is picked up and answered in professional tones.

Not so at Shrewsday Mansions.

We cannot seem to unite phone and cradle. Someone picks it up, holds a short conversation with Granny and then leaves it absent-mindedly in the toy box next to Al’s big fire engine.

Our phones are evolving, it seems, and have developed a burrowing habit. They eschew visible surfaces, delving deep into the meta-layers of the household and then shrilling infuriatingly from their underground lairs.

It is a high-speed game of hide and seek, a hunt-the-thing-about-fifty-times-bigger-than-a-thimble. We begin searching in the obvious places, of course, but the phone only rings eight times. That’s about 16 seconds before the world gives up with a shrug and slopes disconsolately off to phone somebody else.

Cushions fly and every aural sense in the house strains to track the sound to its source, and that includes the disreputable shell-likes of the dog. Voices are raised. Inevitably we locate the prodigal tones on ring seven-and-a-half between the washing machine and the cleaning cupboard.

Someone, usually myself or the Man Of The House, crossly issues an edict that all phones should be placed back in their cradle after use; and when the phone call is over,they park it absent mindedly next to the breadmaker to burrow another day.

Today when it rang, we ran in all our customary directions, making cushions airborne, interrogating crevices, investigating the dark underworld which lurks beneath the sofa.

It was on the cradle, naturally, trilling with a malevolent innocence.

I picked it up, snarling unbecomingly.

“Bonjour et bienvenue a la gare De L’Est Paris!”  a familiar BBC-announcer voice barked happily down the phone. In a BBC-French accent, if such a thing could ever be permitted by the French authorities to exist.

My husband is on a breakneck trail across Europe. Today, Paris, tomorrow, Munich. He goes with one of his greatest friends. I have been promised regular updates because it is a rather lovely trek on European trains. This will include, tonight, the sleeper train to Munich. Could it be any more cinemagic? It reeks of those wonderful pan-European spy thrillers and crime chases.

(Hold on, lads, I’ve got an idea.)

Phil reverted to BBC English for his next report. Best to avoid a punch on a Paris station from some irate French citizen who objected to his pointed Anglicisation of one of the most suave and sophisticated dialects in the world.

“I am standing in this historic station feeling a little poignant”, he continued, “because I have seen pictures of this place all my life. And although I have never been here before, it hasn’t changed a bit.”

I poised a silent question mark at the London end of the conversation: the question mark we all use here, which has graced conversations over bone china since the Vikings settled down and polite society was born.

Phil, being a good English boy, needed no other prompt. “I am talking, of course, of the pictures of soldiers getting on trains here to be sent to the front during the First World War”, he explained.

I have seen those pictures before. Young men who would never return, sleeping in rows along the walls, waiting to inhabit those ghastly trenches, clothed in stiff, uncomfortable kit, each with their clanking mess tins.

Phil and those young men were standing on the same station, looking at an almost identical view. The oldest Gare in the city has changed very little. Details matched for both sets of eyes.

What separated them was a matter of  94 years or so. There it is again: that knowledge that time is the only thing that stops everything happening at once. And just occasionally, one can almost touch those from long ago; all that hinders us is what seems, momentarily, a very flimsy barrier indeed. Time.

Each of us had fallen, for a few split seconds, into a micro-reverie. We shook ourselves. Would Phil be eating snails, I enquired?

No: it seemed France’s shelled slimedwellers were safe for the present. Phil and his friend would be on the Munich train in just 15 minutes, sizing up the bunks for comfort, eyeing up the restaurant car. He laughed in the face of snails: bratwurst only, for him.

They will get on the train, possibly, without seeing what I have learnt about. Hanging above the heads of those who bustle back and forth at Gare De L’Est is an eloquent, and very Gallic, reminder of those days. Not everyone thinks to look up. Hung there is Albert Herter’s ‘Départ des Poilus’ – the departure of the conscripts. Herter lost his own son to the war in 1918.

It is a vital, energetic preface to the horrors to come, showing just a handful of the thousands of last goodbyes at Gare De L’Est. SNCF, France’s rail company, took it down during the station’s renovation and were a bit hazy about when they might return it. There was immediate public outcry: SNCF rehung it with all speed in 2008.

Time seems a mere formality. This space unites my husband with those husbands and sons of long ago.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

With thanks to Sharif Gemie of Glamorgan Blogs, for a beautiful introduction to this painting and its background. His work can be found here 

24 thoughts on “Brief Encounter

    1. Not my own, Bluebee: a saying I can’t seem to pin down to anyone, it’s been attributed all over the place.
      But I’ve used it so much I have become accustomed to it!

  1. How exciting . . . a train trip!

    I have been promised regular updates because it is a rather lovely trek on European trains. This will include, tonight, the sleeper train to Munich. Could it be any more cinemagic? It reeks of those wonderful pan-European spy thrillers and crime chases.

    Glad you found the phone in time for the update.

    1. It was fortunate, Nancy. We are not waiting in for more, however: tomorrow, London and the Globe Theatre for those left behind. The updates will be sought on the hoof 🙂

    1. The whole family would need a considerable amount of convincing on the snails, Cindy 😀 Not sure Mad could reconcile snails on the plate with her buddies out there in the garden…

  2. we will remember them………
    apparently the last known WW1 soldier died recently, somewhere antipodean I believe

    i am so glad you realised that polite society began with us vikings!

    1. Claude Choules, officer in the Australian army I think, Sidey 🙂 He wrote a book called Last Of The Last, but I’ve never read it. I think he was 110. I love the last British soldier’s name: Harry Patch…
      It has become passe in our chattering classes to blame the Vikings for uncivilised behaviour (although our monks still blanch whenever there is a nordic soul in the abbey)

      But our kids are still being affably indoctrinated. Take a look at this, from my favourite kiddies programme Horrible HIstories:

  3. Herter’s painting still holds a chord today, doesn’t it, though not the departures at train stations like we see here, still, the departures? Men, and now women, going off to war and the loss of lives and generations. Ah, your post brought out the pacifist in me, and then sent me on an internet journey to learn more about this mural and Herter and all sorts of things I didn’t know and now do. Pretty grand, this life of ours. Thank you, Kate, for you always give me something to think about, to ponder, to life, and even to shed a tear or two.

    The forget-me-nots are still holding court here on the Cutoff.

    1. Penny, it is always lovely to hear that, just as you do so often for me, I can set off the odd line of enquiry. An amazing painting it certainly is. Life is simply not for squandering.

  4. Makes one wonder how it is that we were born at this time, in this place, rather than at that time, in that place to live out a life so different…

    Back then, phones didn’t have legs and stayed tied to the wall! 🙂

  5. We have three cordless phones and rarely are they where they should be. Scout often has two in his room, lying in the flood of detritus, out of battery, so that even when we press the ‘find’ button on the main hall cradle those that need resuscitation do not respond.

    Is that really a painting? So realistic.

  6. What a beautiful – and, knowing what we know, terrible – painting. And that a post starting out amid the frustration of migrating phones in a London area house should end in the poignancy of mere time-separated moments in a Paris train station… where else but on a Kate’s Blog would this make complete and utter and profound sense?

    1. 😀 my brain tends to wander like a conversation over a cup of tea, Ruth, with those characteristic direction-changes we usually share with our friends…a touching comment, Ruth, thank you so much 🙂

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