He dreamed often of such things happening but they rarely did. He sat at the very back of the coach and only a minute later a slim French woman arrived and asked if the spot next to him was taken. He said no. She needed a hand with her backpack so he helped her push it up and into the rack. In the London warmth, her leather jacket was open and her bra strap was showing.
From Victoria Coach Station to Paris, the first official stop, would take nearly ten hours. She was already talking again, asking him where he was going. Bordeaux, he reported, and then asked her the same question. Paris, she said, and then on to Germany by train. He looked beyond her face to the coach next to theirs, which was inert, and then suddenly in motion. When it had left, a whole new view opened up—the hugeness of the station and the flurry of pigeons and of people everywhere. He looked back to the woman.
“Have you heard of the Sisters of Mercy?” she asked him.
“Yes,” he answered.
“Even at your age,” she said, visibly impressed. “I am doing costumes for their tour. That’s me. What about you?”
“That’s amazing,” he heard himself gushing. “You travel with the band?”
“Yes,” she said. “It’s not so amazing after a while. The lead singer is a bit of an asshole. He’s from England but he won’t speak English anymore. He’s very weird.”
“What language does he speak?” he asked.
“German,” she said. “Can I turn the air on?”
She reached upwards and her jacket slipped off her arm completely. Underneath she had on a tank top and a few wisps of hair showed under her armpit. His throat was tightening. The first burst of the air conditioning smelled like rubber or plastic. While she was standing, the coach suddenly lurched forward. She fell back into her place next to him, laughed, and grabbed his shoulder. “Crazy driver!” He could feel his skin becoming hot from her touch. She introduced herself a few minutes later as Josianne.
At Portsmouth, the clouds were skidding over their heads. The light drained slowly out of the sky while they waited to board the ferry. Josianne decided to buy a carton of cigarettes. Philip tagged along, saying he would look for a gift for his grandmother but once they were in the duty free he realized what a fruitless mission it was going to be. His grandmother didn’t care for cigarettes, liquor, expensive watches or fancy perfumes. She loved to bake, play Scrabble, read books and go for long walks. He bought a bar of Swiss chocolate and hoped it would be OK.
When they finally boarded the ferry, Josianne went to the lounge and bought a glass of red wine and a brie and tomato sandwich. “Do you want a beer?” she asked him just before they reached the check-out. He nodded, trying not to seem too childishly eager. “And a Pelforth,” she said to the clerk. When they were at a safe distance, she handed him the cold, dewy bottle. He was waiting for somebody to interrupt his dream and confiscate the bottle of beer and tell him he was too young for it—and that he was too young to be sitting at a table with a beautiful French woman in her twenties. But no one did any such thing. The ferry moved almost imperceptibly into the English Channel.
Outside the window there were a couple of tugboats bobbing around, their lights shining on the wings of seagulls that were diving and thrusting through the black sky, chasing each other. After only a few minutes, all of this disappeared and the window framed only a square of blackness. They talked about food in France versus England, a conversation that made for several jokes at England’s expense. They exchanged views on the usefulness of a common European currency; he was for it, Josianne was against it, for reasons that seemed mostly emotional and irrational. Her opinion was that it would be a great shame to lose all that artwork on the money—bare-breasted Marianne leading the French revolutionaries and Queen Elizabeth with her stiff upper lip. “Won’t we lose a little part of identities?” she said.
She had just returned from buying another round for them both when he noticed in the reflection of the black window the approach of a man holding a puppy. The puppy was button-eyed with long, straggly fur; its nose poking out from the crook of a man’s arm. The man took a seat by theirs and set the puppy down on the floor on the end of a red leash.
“Oh, he’s adorable,” said Josianne.
The man smiled and for a while all three of them watched the puppy take a few unsteady steps and then become transfixed by the sight of a girl many feet away, carrying a teddy bear.
“What’s his name?”
“Genghis Khan,” said the man, smirking. “Khan for short.”
The puppy approached Philip and jumped up and rested its paw on his leg. They studied each other. Philip felt a tug of paternalism toward the puppy, so tiny and out of place on a crowded ferry in the middle of the sea.
“Can I pick him up?” he asked the owner.
“Of course,” came the reply.
The puppy proceeded to lie down on Philip’s lap and fall fast asleep. Philip hoped Josianne would notice him but she was now deep in conversation with the newcomer. The man was explaining how the puppy had been purchased that afternoon from a dog breeder near Saint Yves; it was a pedigree Yorkshire Terrier. The man was transporting him to Aix-en-Provence where his sister, a breeder, would raise him to be a stud dog.
“Many happy days of fucking in that puppy’s future,” said the man.
Josianne gave him a mock-slap on the arm. Obviously she didn’t find his vulgarity off-putting. Philip felt even more paternal toward the puppy. He started to caress it behind its ears. Now the man was talking about having successfully smuggled the dog past customs, evading the exorbitant duty. He gestured to the place inside his bomber jacket where the puppy had nestled while the customs officer had poked his head in through the car window and harassed him with questions.
“The puppy didn’t make a peep,” said the man.
“He’s an illegal,” said Josianne.
“An outlaw,” said the man.
Finally, Josianne looked over at Philip and the puppy. Noticing how peaceful the puppy was on his lap, she gave him a smile.
Philip asked the dog smuggler, “What happens when the dog has to shit?”
Josianne looked at him and frowned.
“He had a bowel movement in Portsmouth,” said the man. “I think he should be OK for the crossing.”
“Can I take him for a walk?” Philip asked, suddenly wanting to be on his own.
“No problem,” said the man. He tapped his watch and said with an exaggerated tone of authority, “We would need you to be back within thirty minutes.”
Philip resented the parental “we.” He stood up and the puppy stirred in his arms. He continued holding the dog as he walked out of the lounge and past the arcade machines and one-armed bandits, which flashed and chortled and chirped. Almost every passerby looked at the puppy and then smiled at him. It would have been so easy to strike up a conversation with a stranger. Out in the gangway there was a sign for emergency life boats. Philip wrenched on the handle of a door and pushed through to the deck.
The wind was bitterly cold and in the pitch darkness there was hardly anything to see. The puppy’s body stiffened in his arms. It was shivering. He zipped up his jacket, covering up everything but the puppy’s little nose. He approached the edge of the deck and leaned over the railing. Many metres below, the sea was churning over into hundreds of angry wavelets. He imagined falling overboard. He tried to predict the sensation of getting sucked underneath and chopped into pieces by the propeller.
Philip returned to the lounge and slumped into the seat next to Josianne. She seemed to have become tipsy while he had been away. The dog smuggler wagged a finger at Philip and said he’d taken way more than thirty minutes.
He said, “That was a bit naughty of you.”
“Very naughty!” Josianne giggled.
The dog smuggler offered to go buy another round for everyone. When he stood up, he hesitated in front of Philip for a moment. Looking up at him, his legs seemed to go on forever. He wanted to check if the puppy was OK. Philip opened his jacket and the puppy squinted at its owner.
When Philip was alone again with Josianne she leaned in to him and spoke softly, as if sharing a secret. “He is so funny,” she said. “We are really getting along.”
Philip didn’t know what to say. He felt agitated and was wishing already that he’d stayed on the deck. Directly in front there was a table of men in their twenties who, with their shaved heads and block-like chins, looked like army types, all of them drinking lagers and bellowing at each other. A girl walked by rather precariously on high heels. Her thin face reminded Philip of a vulture’s. One of the army types wolf whistled and immediately afterwards the table shook with laughter.
The dog smuggler returned with the drinks he’d promised. Everything was arranged on a plastic tray that was covered by a paper doily. One of the army types who’d been eyeing Josianne said, “Whenever you need a real man, missus,” and then made some sort of slurping sound with his mouth. The insult had clearly been directed at the dog smuggler who was in the middle of transferring a glass of wine from the tray to the table. He turned to face the army man and glowered. The army type laughed. “Make mine a Heineken please, garçon.”
“Ignore them,” said Josianne. “Let’s sit elsewhere.
Now all of the army men were looking. The puppy wriggled out of Philip’s hands and jumped onto the floor and shook himself vigorously. One of the army men jeered, “Is that a dog or a rat?” The squadron laughed.
“Bunch of louts,” said the dog smuggler, turning back to Philip and Josianne.
He told Josianne to grab the puppy’s leash but Philip had already done so. The dog smuggler led the way while the army types called out. “Come back, missus! You don’t have to leave!” At the exit to the gangway, a uniformed man appeared in the doorway blocking their path. The dog smuggler almost walked straight into him.
“Sorry sir, you can’t take drinks out of the lounge,” said the uniformed man.
The dog smuggler cursed.
“Why don’t you worry about the hooligans over there?” he said, pointing to the army types.
“Has there been a problem, sir?”
“That lot is out of order,” said the dog smuggler. “They’re disturbing everyone.”
The uniformed man glanced over. The army types were shushing each other like school children.
“I’ll see to it,” said the uniformed man. “I’m the purser. If there is anything else… Please enjoy your drinks in the lounge.”
He then walked off in the direction of the counter where he started talking to the staff. Every now and then he glanced over anxiously at the army types but appeared to have no intention of doing anything. Philip settled at a new table with Josianne and the dog smuggler; the puppy was tied to the table leg. It didn’t take long to figure out that their new spot had new inconveniences. They could hear the ferry’s engine vibrating in the gangway and there were constantly people going in and out of the door. It was a very unsettled sort of place. Josianne and the dog smuggler moved even closer together.
Philip was going to say something cheerful about the crossing not lasting too much longer now, but it didn’t matter. Josianne and the dog smuggler had given up any pretence of including him. He left the puppy tied up and mentioned in passing he’d be back soon. He returned to the deck, leaned over the railing and kicked off with his feet so that he was no longer touching the floor. All of his weight was now bearing down on just a few centimetres of metal. He stared into the water.
Before leaving home, he had looked forward to visiting his grandmother. He had anticipated eating the little grapes that grew up the sides of her little terrasse; using the swimming pool she shared with the other people in the complex; taking an afternoon coffee in the corner café and watching people, especially the women and the girls, coming and going; walking down to the station and feeling the trembling under his feet of the huge freight trains passing through. But now all these things seemed childish and a boring repetition of everything he’d done a year ago.
He turned away from the grinding sea, distanced himself with an additional few footsteps, and then stopped. One of the army types was emerging from the door. He was the one that had made the comment about a needing a “real man.” He sat down on the bench and flicked his lighter. He hadn’t even glanced in Philip’s direction. They were the only two on the deck. Philip bunched up his fist. He considered its size while he looked at that of his adversary, still cradling the lighter. A flame caught. The cigarette was a miniature lighthouse. Finally the army type noticed him. Philip set himself in motion. It would take just ten steps to reach the door.
“The way you behaved in there was completely without class,” he said.
The freezing cold handle of the door was already in his palm. He didn’t even venture a sideways glance. He wrenched on the handle and a blast of warm air greeted him.
He felt as if every part of him were clenched up. He expected the army type to barge through the door after him and grab his collar. He would have to turn and fight. Maybe he’d land a punch and cut one of those thick, stupid lips. After that, the contest would surely be over quickly and he’d be lying bruised and battered on the gangway floor. Josianne, hearing the commotion, would rush to see what had happened and the puppy would be yapping with fright at her heels.
He rounded the corner and re-entered the lounge. Josianne was sitting on the dog smuggler’s lap. When she saw Philip she gave him an odd sort of formal smile.
“News for you,” she said. “I’ve very kindly been offered a lift to Paris!”
Philip, not understanding at first, looked at her and then at the dog smuggler. It only took a second of the dog smuggler’s triumphant grin to know what was up. Philip collapsed into his seat, his heart still straining at his chest, but the army type hadn’t followed him. Once he realized there would be no confrontation, he felt let down. Josianne would never know how he had defended her honour.
An hour later they were standing between the two coaches and he was handing Josianne her large backpack that he had just helped pull down from the rack—staying gracious right to the end. He could hear the puppy’s yipping five cars in front. He found himself fumbling with the few words he’d saved up.
“All the very best with the Sisters of Mercy,” he said.
“You too,” Josianne said.
She hugged him and the zipper of her leather jacket scraped the underneath of his chin. It was a very brief hug, her perfume lingering much longer.
He sat down at the back of the coach, having no neighbours now, and spread his arms on either side. He let out a large sigh. By the time the coach made a pit-stop in Paris, he felt a bit better about everything. He got off and asked a stranger for a cigarette. It was time to pick up some bad habits.