Prose from the Eurostar
Giselle Bernard | 15 March 2019
Portrait of Otti Berger with Bauhaus facade, attibuted to Judit Kàràsz, 1931. © Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin
Reading the beginning of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, I was struck by descriptions of the small French town where the narrator spends his childhood holidays: Combray. There, nobody is unknown, down to the inhabitants’ pets. The protagonist’s great aunt is distressed when she hears that her brother met someone he did not know while on a walk, but is reassured when he tells her that he was, in fact, acquainted with the suspected stranger. I could, to some degree, relate Proust’s account of small-town France at the turn of the 19th Century to my own childhood growing up in rural northern France, where I was the exotic creature for speaking a foreign language and having travelled overseas. At the same time, I felt a great sense of mismatch reading this classic, having spent a good part of the unfolding academic year thinking about hybridity, diversity and mobility as part of my degree in migration studies. To readers living in an ‘age of migration’, Combray might as well have been on another planet. Yet, while the idea that we live in an increasingly, and exceptionally, mobile and interconnected world is (rightly or wrongly) broadly shared, it is unclear what exactly we mean by this.
Ancient Greek philosopher Zeno of Elea devised a number of paradoxes to demonstrate that motion is an illusion. In one of these, he describes an arrow in flight. At any instant of time, Zeno claims, the arrow is neither moving to where it is, nor to where it is not. It occupies an equal space, and is in fact motionless. The best rebuttal to Zeno’s idea that motion is impossible perhaps remains Diogenes saying nothing upon hearing the paradoxes, but instead standing up and walking. Yet, if the flying arrow paradox fails to convince us of any metaphysical truth about motion, it is better at illuminating the ways in which we think about mobility. It suggests the difficulty that, when we want to talk about movement, we might only be able to do so through fragments, themselves static. One can capture departure, salient points, arrival, but the journey itself, or exactly how change occurs, remain elusive.
Another sort of fragmentation further complicates the possibility of reflecting movement into words, namely the sheer diversity, incommensurability even, of different experiences of journeys, including those which might seem, on the surface, similar. Take a Eurostar carriage racing towards, or away from home. To a woman sitting inside, this is a routine business trip, paid for by her employers. To the teenage boy and his friends a few rows in front, this is the trip of a lifetime, one they bitterly negotiated and have high hopes for. The train takes a man to their left towards an anxiety-inducing interview for a job he doesn’t really want. Others, yet, did not make it onto the carriage and are trying to find sleep in a damp ditch at the border, clutching the ‘wrong’ passports. Going through security was a hurdle for some, a formality for others. While a young woman seems absorbed in reading the signs in French and English, many are hardly present to the scene, their experience of it shrouded by memories, grief, or relief at what’s left behind, thoughts of what lies ahead. Someone, listening to voice mails, barely notices they’ve departed. A man eagerly awaits the familiar faces and open arms he knows will greet him on the platform; another is not sure where they’ll sleep tonight; another yet wonders how she’ll ever communicate anything in a language that’s not her own. What is personal about these journeys, what is attributable to broader social and political patterns? What is a detail, what is telling of some significant whole? What can, or should be abstracted, narrated, from the infinity of lived moments? What do they have in common, beyond the miles travelled? Are the words we use helpful, or do they obscure more than they illuminate? Is ‘mobility’ the term we need to examine such a variety of phenomena? Can it spur understanding, empathy or solidarity, even? Or is it a way to conjure the instability and ruptures that, sometimes, come with movement across space, and the ensuing personal, social or historical changes? Is it a trick of language to bring coherence, and order under the same label things that in no fundamental way belong together? I have little in the way of answers, but offer, instead, a few more fragments for arrows to fly through.
The first skyscrapers chisel the horizon. St Pancras, soon. You wonder: who was it that drew those lines? Who decided to start counting coins? Oh it's got so much to offer, and you'll never be alone in Primark or the Shard. He tries to remember the southern French house where he grew up; he sees the heavy, uneven stone step to his front door, and hears the Minch softly rippling against it. He woke up too early, and the memory of the dream falters. I need to feel the weight of the silver chain and groatie buckie on my neck to be reminded of a place where I can hear my own footsteps. Where was it again he heard this? 'We are the transparence of our landscapes'. I am the transparence of a transparent landscape.
Take me out, where there’s music and there’s people and they’re young and alive. These days, words have been bouncing off the silent walls of my mind, losing shape and substance in the echo. It surprises me, when they stumble past the edge of my lips, that anyone should listen, or give me an answer that tells me they’ve understood. More often, I hear muted sounds in a foreign tongue. I have to squint at the speaker to try and make out what they’re saying. I write, now, with no other ambition than stitching together an ‘I’. I hardly wish for another reader: Je est un.e autre, et pourtant c’est moi qui écrit. Voilà un mystère déjà bien assez grand.
J’ai dépensé les dernières livres sur mon compte, survolé trop de kilomètres pour me trouver ici, une chambre à moi, surplombant un grand carrefour pas vraiment bruyant grâce au double vitrage. Quatre murs blancs, un lit, un bureau, une chaise, blancs également. Une large fenêtre, les bords incrustés de moisi de part en part. Le centre-ville derrière, la zone industrielle devant; la même, je pense, qu’à Paris, Munich ou Stockholm. Je regarde les voitures passer devant, autour, sans hésitation, discernant clairement dans ce nulle part des destinations. Je les regarde, envieuse, me retourne vers le miroir sale qui me renvoie mon reflet flou. Je n’ai jamais su si j’étais belle, l’image est muette, et ce n’est pas une question que l’on pose avec l’espoir d’une réponse honnête. J’irai, peut-être, au cinéma.
The dead I knew are bodiless. Except the little cat, warm, and soft, the only sign a trickle of blood at the side of her mouth. Her, I buried myself. I know the spot in the garden. The others, their deaths were only words. Long before, they had turned to sound and image and who’s to say they’re not out there still? What’s the difference between memory and imagination, what’s the difference between their decaying flesh and your silence?
Elle est d’un autre monde, un monde auquel, ici, on ose à peine rêver d’avoir un jour accès; un monde de raffinement, de légèreté, d’abondance. Son frigo est vide. Son compte en banque aussi. Toute à l’heure au supermarché, alors qu’elle avait soigneusement compté ses pièces (jaunes, rouges) son sourire à la caissière déguisait assez mal son angoisse : une erreur de calcul et elle rentrerait bredouille, traquée par des regards qu’elle imaginerait désapprobateurs ou emplis de pitié, sans doute en réalité indifférents. Pour les détourner, elle aurait inventé une histoire d’étourderie : «j’ai oublié ma carte chez moi», ou alors «ah c’est parce que c’est une carte étrangère, des fois ça marche pas» sachant pertinemment que les trois sont bloquées. Elle a choisi d’être ici. Et voilà qu’elle ne sait plus si elle doit pleurer un paradis perdu ou célébrer sa libération d’une prison dorée, ni comment construire une vie dans ces laides rues qu’elle arpente. Elle sent le vide grandir sous ses pieds, là où il lui semble que tant d’autres ont des racines.
In the four years before our reunion, the words we didn’t share had gathered, now forming a dusty pile between us. We don’t mind: you remind me, and I remind you, we’re older; we’re grateful for the cover. And when I catch your furtive smiles, I think we still get it right more than we get it wrong.
Behind the veil of alcohol, I kissed another stranger last night. The seventh. Second with no name. He kissed my hand, and laughed. So I laughed too. But then his fingers climbed my spine, fell to my thighs, rattled my rib cage, and he bit my lip a little too hard. So I walked away. You could not move anything but your hips and lashes, when I found you in the crowd again, a mute smile painted on your pretty face. Your eyes were more watery still than in the morning. I pulled you from the sticky nightclub onto the street, and we both watched our breaths leaving us in the northern air. The few words that hadn’t been choked by other lips also floated away. ‘We’re never going back home’, you said. You must have been picturing your Caribbean lagoons then, feeling the hot December air; remembering your battered little car, familiar names: la montagne Pelée, Fort-de-France, Tatie. I said ‘Sometimes I feel a bit envious, listening to Ray Blk singing ‘bout her ‘hood’. Me, I just saw the street-light across shining on the customers tripping onto the pavement from the neon-lit kebab shop, the yellow house above.
Sing it to me, my heartache, my heartache. Blast it through the speakers ‘till it obliterates like the sugar I sprinkle on coffee. Strange faces and an old friend, blood splattered on the pavement, blood coughed from the lungs, dripping through the mouth sticking to the three weeks beard, blood, pumping through my veins again. Inconsequential, the big city life. Here, I am forever safe, forever torn apart, put together again. Fortunately, the streets are so wide you could walk right past me without either of us noticing. The roads cross to Shoreditch, I miss a turn. I’m there anyway. I know, because they’re there, covering up their skin as summer comes closer. Miniskirts and clutching cold beers are for December. Here, now, is important. For he with the carefully unbuttoned shirt and loud blush, for they with the long blonde wig flowing over their rugbyman’s frame. Someone, in Thornhill, wants to be like them. But they don’t have the city bubbling around them, dissolving them, dissolving their bones ‘till nothing’s left but a bit of glittery dust. They’re a freak.
Every meter on the bus to the detention centre brought a new layer of darkness and made light strange. Tesco Christmas lights. Run down off-licence Christmas lights. A big, empty house – Christmas lights, and crows over barren fields. No Christmas lights in Harmondsworth. The chair towers over your bony silhouette. Nowhere else for me to look, we both knew I'd walk away. This Nation’s made your skin so pale I could draw my own face on it in pencil. 'I am afraid it is, quite impossible for You to stay' they all say, and put walls around you. 'The faceless law not us', they say and look away. 'Article insert number of a nameless Act.' Christmas lights, and the planes over winter fields.
It was a home no human hands could have built. The ebb and flow of the tides too constant, the heather under my feet too soft for its rough mask to convince. I know a man whose passing here was a little more permanent. Jim’s body was found, some years ago, in the bay. I imagine it sometimes, floating to shore in the little hours of morning, disturbing the still, mirror-like surface yet to be tousled by the movements of a day; creating little shadows in the blue and blinding white. I think of his fishing boat drifting somewhere beyond the rocky embrace of the shoreline, the net trailing behind.
When I make it through the initial pain the memory evokes, I feel no sadness. I know the sun could only have caught serenity on his face. The waters that brought him back had not yet bloated his flesh. The buttons of his checked shirt were still fastened all the way up, his beige raincoat still wrapped around him, the way she’d arranged it before he set out.
Perhaps that’s why I never wrote. I had not forgotten his or her kindness- there was, simply, nothing to be put right.
Giselle was born in Scotland and raised in France. She completed an MSc in Migration Studies at Oxford after a somewhat different learning journey which took her from Calais to Athens through refugee camps and arrival centres, where she tried to forge an understanding of the unfolding ‘refugee crisis’. Now based in Germany, she spends the best part of her time reading forgotten French women writers and (unsuccessfully) trying to learn Arabic.