A BAD DAY FOR GOODBYES
The idea had seemed fine when we’d discussed it. My mind had toyed with me, shown me images recalled from The Autobiography of a Supertramp, the time of the American depression, hobos. It'd be easy: a goods train bound for northern Spain, skip-like containers linked together behind a locomotive. No guards, no trouble no hassle, just a lone driver. Roger and I'd sneak into the goods yard at dusk, jump into one of the trucks and lie low. It was going to be a cinch. A free ride up to the French border, then the same again through France. We’d jump trains all the way home. Better than hitching.
We’d left the others lying about in the boat getting stoned. We’d said our goodbyes, grabbed our bags and walked out of Ernest’s boatyard, past the school, to the roundabout. It was late afternoon and we’d seen the planes taxiing at the far end of the runway as we’d walked across it towards the border with Spain; the high-pitched whine of the engines. Customs hadn’t bothered with us. We didn’t look as though we'd the wherewithal to be smuggling anything. And if we had we wouldn’t have passed that way anyway. The checkpoint was there mainly to annoy the Gibraltarians. It slowed them down.
The bus to Algeciras had been half empty. Roger and I hadn’t spoken much on the way. We didn’t have a lot in common. We sat on hard wooden seats, the strip lights flickering above us, and counted the dead animals that littered the verges. Dogs came out top; they always did. The coast from Gibraltar to Algeciras was the shitty end of the Costa del Sol. It hadn’t the pizzazz of the eastern costas, and Algeciras had a seedy reputation for drugs, prostitutes and broken down Moroccans and Spaniards, the latter two groups hustling for some money to get hold of the former. I’d never felt at ease in the place.
We reached the bus terminus, which was by the train station, as it was getting dark. The evenings were still very warm, the cicadas keeping up the accompaniment on their back-legged violins, even in town. This station was definitely the end of the line, reeking of Ducados cigarette smoke, stale sweat and a smattering of piss. Lonely-looking couples with walnut skin and bloodshot eyes under mats of deep-black hair crouched together beside pillars. Cigarette butts littered the floor, a toddler snivelled loudly and then let out a scream as a worn-out Andalusian mother slapped its legs to make it shut up. The tang of hashish made me turn to follow its trail to source like some Bisto kid who’d taken a wrong turning in life.
'Is it Salidas or the other one?' Roger was looking up at the badly lit and decaying departures board and pulling out a cigarette from his Harington pocket.
'Then there’s an Express to Port Bou in a couple of hours.' He stuffed the cigarette into his mouth and lit it.
'I thought we were going to try for a goods train,' I said, disliking this change in the plan.
'An Express will be quicker.'
'Well, let’s get a coffee or something while we wait.'
'I can’t afford it.'
A video was beginning to play inside my head and when I fast forwarded it to the end it didn’t have a happy ending.
'I’ll buy you one,' I said. 'There’s a café over there.'
'All right.' Roger picked up his bag and began walking towards the area of the station I’d pointed out. There were three or four round plastic tables set out in a corner together with plastic bucket armchairs. A middle-aged woman stood staring out from behind a counter on which stood a milk jug, sugar bowl and a small rack containing cheap confectionery and a few dried up rolls. I followed Roger. He picked out a table, dumped his bag and slumped into a chair facing the station concourse. I avoided his gaze as I sat down in a chair next to him.
I was becoming more and more sure that I couldn’t go through with it.
'Is she going to serve us or what?'
From the vacant expression on the woman’s face it seemed unlikely. I tried to catch her eye, then flapped my hand at her. The movement caught her attention and her eyes refocused on our table, then on us.
'Un café solo y un café con leche, por favor,' I called.
She looked at me for a moment, not moving. Then she pulled herself up off the counter and began preparing our coffees.
'Man! Does she look bored,' I said.
Roger gazed ahead of him as vacantly as the woman behind the counter had.
The woman opened the valve of the steamer and heated milk in a large stainless steel jug. Gurgling and hissing. We waited for her to turn the thing off and bring us our coffees but once she'd prepared them she slid the cups onto the counter and went back to her leaning and staring.
'Lazy, useless, fucking, mañana people,' Roger said, 'I can’t wait to get the hell out of this country.' Then he stood up and went to get the coffees. The woman said something to him. Or rather, she said something to someone who was somewhere in front of her line of sight, which Roger wasn’t in. I heard him say 'Que?' and she mumbled something and this time looked at him for a second before fixing her gaze back into the somewhere never. Roger grabbed the coffees and came back over to the table, put them down, slopping some of the milky coffee into the saucers.
'No idea what she was on about,' he said.
'Hoh!' The woman was calling to us, hissing. Still leaning on the counter but now looking as us. 'Hoh! Dinero ahora!' Money now. Give me money now.
We ignored her and presently she stopped calling. We sipped in silence. Roger lit up another cigarette and went back into reverie. A Local train arrived and a small crowd surged through the barrier and on through the station. I moved my chair around to get a better view of the passengers and of others waiting for their trains. The last time I'd been in the station I had been arriving, not departing. And I'd travelled legally, with a ticket. It was such a long way home. What would happen if we got caught? And we were bound to get caught. Would the guard chuck us off the train in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night, miles from anywhere? Would we get arrested and chucked in jail? I’d heard some bad stories about Spanish jails. I was so scrawny. I might come out speaking fluent Spanish but there were easier ways to learn a language. And anyway, where was there to hide in a train? Hiding in the toilets was too obvious. Ticket inspectors were always checking them. It was such a long way home. I'd about ten pounds sterling on me, earned unloading a refrigerator lorry the day before. I don’t think Roger had anything on him. I was a crap liar. I hated getting into trouble. I was a weed. I’d always been a weed. I…
'I don’t think I can do it, Roger.' I looked over and he raised an eyebrow and gave a close-lipped grin.
'I don’t think I can go through with it,' I said. 'I know it sounds shit and I feel really bad letting you down, but it’s too…' All my reasons for not wanting to get on the train were cowardly. '…I think I want to stay in Gib. Fuck England. It’s always the same old shit once you get home anyway. And some work may turn up soon enough. I don’t want to go back yet.'
Roger shunted his chair, leant forward and rested his arms on his knees. Then he took a long drag on his cigarette and blew a lungful of smoke down at the ground.
'But it was your idea in the first place.' He looked up at me.
'I know,' I said. 'I know.'
I wanted to get out of this. Leave this situation behind and forget about it. Go back to the boat, get drunk, get stoned, get out of my head and forget about it. Do something that I was confident in being able to do. Something that I could do, no problem. Get out off my head and not be here being seen to be a weak man, letting a friend down.
I stood up and went over to pay the woman at the counter, walked back over to the table.
'Let’s see if there’s a goods train or something,' I said. 'It’d be easier on a goods train.'
'You go. I’ll look after the bags.'
I turned away and walked out of the station.
I felt as though I’d walked out of a killing jar. The oppression, Roger’s sullen presence, slowly evaporated and the slight breeze that came up from the Med. touched my face and slipped into my nostrils and through my mouth and into my lungs. Dusk had been replaced by darkness, but the lights from the bus station bays and the inside of waiting buses lit up the area around the station. I needed a piss and moved out of the light and around the side of the train station where it was darker. I stood behind a tree and undid my fly, quietly strafing the trunk of the tree to avoid catching anyone’s attention. I moved my feet mid-flow to avoid the puddle that began to form on the earth around my feet. My eyes grew accustomed to the surrounding gloom and I zipped up and stepped out from the shelter of the tree and made for the railway yard but I could see before I reached it that there weren't any goods trains there. I was relieved, but stood beside the perimeter fence for a while, hands in pockets, peering through the holes in the wire. Nothing moved. Then I spotted a rat run out from behind an upturned metal drum, making its determined way along the ground, pink feet kicking, scaled tail trailing behind.
'Hello, Brother,' I muttered. 'You and me both.'
Roger had moved from the table and was sitting on his bag by one of the grotty pillars. He looked up at me as I approached and gestured with his hand, an open palmed flick of the wrist. Well?
'Nothing there. The yard’s empty.'
'So…?' He looked into my eyes. He wanted me to go though with it. He wanted me to go with him. He wanted help with going through with it. It was going to be a long trip home.
I turned away from the look on his face, dug into the pocket of my jeans and pulled out what money I had. I took a few of the smaller notes, stuffed them into a pocket, and then turned back to look at Roger.
'Sorry. I can’t.' I held out the money. 'But take this. You can buy me a drink sometime.'
He reached up a hand and took it and looked at it.
'In England.' He gave a grim smile.
I picked up my bag and slung it over my shoulder and held out my hand. Roger put the money into his jacket pocket and stood up and we shook hands.
'I feel shit about this.'
'I’m sorry.' I raised a hand in farewell. Roger sat down and was pulling out a cigarette packet from his jacket pocket when I turned and walked away.
There was a La Linea bus waiting outside the station and I got on it, bought a ticket to the end of the line and went and sat on a seat at the back. A short while afterwards the bus pulled away from the bay and we drove through the town and out over the hills.
For most of the journey I thought about Roger, sitting there on his bag in Algeciras train station, smoking cigarettes and waiting for the Port Bou Express. Then as the bus started its run along the coast road towards Gibraltar, when I saw the Rock silhouetted against the night sky and the lights twinkling over the town and the boats and the sea, I began to look forward to seeing my friends again, to getting stoned, to going home.