The knock on his door woke David. He looked at his watch to see it was six o'clock, then called "Merci" across the room as he got out of bed. A quarter hour later he was at a table in the dining room with coffee, two croissants and a piece of brie, his satchel and basket at his feet.
At six forty-five, he crossed the street to the station, found the platform for Boulogne and walked along it to his car. He rechecked his seat number, then boarded. Two men were already in the compartment when he entered and greeted them with, "Bonjour, good morning." Both replied in English with British accents, but other than that, they remained silent.
David took his writing paper from the satchel before lifting his luggage to the rack. Good time to write a letter home — my parent's home. He settled into his seat as the train began moving. Shortly past ten thirty, after brief station stops in Amiens and Abbeville, the train stopped in Etaples, where a large group of British soldiers boarded.
While the train continued northward, the soldiers moved through the cars checking passenger identification documents and tickets. As David handed his travel orders and tickets to a soldier, he thought it a clever way to screen out suspicious passengers. There'll probably be another screening before we board the ferry.
Shortly past eleven, the train arrived on the wharf in Boulogne, alongside the cross-channel steamer. David followed the other passengers from his car as they crossed the wharf and entered a building where his documents were examined and his ticket was punched. He followed the others out a door at the far end of the vast room and up the passenger gangway to the ship. After boarding, he stood at the rail and surveyed the scene below him on the wharves.
Some of the passengers had engaged the services of porters and their handcarts to assist with their luggage, while others, as he had done, carried their own bags. He watched while baggage from the train was loaded onto waggons, then as a long line of vans marked with red crosses arrived alongside the ship. From them, dozens of stretchers were carried up a ramp and aboard.
Farther along the wharf, crowds of passengers were rushing from the train cars toward the ticket building. Looks like they hold them aboard the train until the First Class passengers have disembarked. I'm back into the British world now, where class makes a huge difference. Must ensure I never abuse it.
He strolled around the decks, then through the ship, and as he passed the restaurant, he thought about lunch. Probably the best time is now before it gets crowded. Money? I'll need Pounds. Wonder if they'll take my Swiss gold. At the restaurant, he was directed to the purser's office, where he presented a Twenty Franc piece. The clerk looked at his tables and said, "Fifteen shillings, tuppence."
David nodded. "Sounds fair." He watched as the clerk counted out four half-crowns, two florins, a shilling and two pennies. The Pound continues strong. Down less than three percent since the start of the war. The German Mark has lost nearly twenty percent.
Back in the restaurant, he took one of the last empty seats and ordered a steak and kidney pie. Five minutes later it was plunked in front of him, slopped onto the cloth. How inelegant! How British.
As he sipped his dark ale and ate, he thought of exchange rates. A good measure of how each side is faring. I should plot the Pound, the French Franc and the Mark against the Swiss Franc and the US Dollar. The major belligerents against the major neutrals. He pulled out his pen and notebook and jotted down the values he had received just now and last evening, plus the details of his Marc to Swiss Franc transactions last month. I can get historic details from a bank in Oxford.
After his lunch, he headed out onto the side deck for fresh air, but he quickly ducked back in as he was hit by the blustery winds driven by a rain squall. He located the First Class saloon, where he sat and continued reading. Fifty minutes later, he looked up as he felt the suddenly increased vibrations in the ship. Feels like the ship to and from Vancouver Island when it begins to slow for the port. He glanced at his watch. Quick, but it's only twenty-five miles across.
Placing his book on the seat, he went out onto the deck to watch the ship being brought alongside the wharf in Folkstone. Motion in the background ashore caught his eye, and he followed a train's descent of the steep grade into the town and across a long, multi-arched bridge. Must be passengers for France... And the train to take us to London.
Less than a quarter hour later, he followed the queue down the companionway and along the pier to the terminus building. His documents were checked, and he continued through the building and out the other side to the train platform. So my papers have been checked three times now. Bluffing a way through this would be tough.
He walked along the platform past the ambulance cars, which were being loaded by a long line of stretcher bearers while the walking wounded waited alongside the cars for their turn to board. This must be a steady stream. The trenches seem to provide an endless supply. He shook his head. Such a horrid way to think of this, the wounded as things, as objects, as simply one of the consequences of the war.
David boarded his car, found his compartment, and sat looking out the window at the steady stream of people emerging from the terminus building and heading past toward their cars. Most of them divert their eyes from the wounded. Is that denial, pretending the carnage doesn't exist? Maybe guilt because they're not involved in the war? How do I know they're not involved? Look at me. I appear completely uninvolved. He continued watching and trying to make sense of what he was seeing.
Shrill whistles woke him from his trance, and he looked out to see a few stragglers pick up their pace toward their cars. Within a minute, he heard the hiss of steam as the train juddered into motion. In the compartment were the same two dour men. "That was an easy crossing," he said. They both looked up with puzzled expressions, but remained silent. The British seem so restrained compared to Canadians. All the French, Swiss, and even the Germans I've met have been more genial. He picked up his book, opened it and continued reading.
The seventy-mile trip from Folkstone to London was non-stop, and David glanced at his watch when he felt the train slowing. Another twelve minutes. He looked out at the house gardens flashing past close outside his window. This must be a noisy place to live — and a dirty one. Everything's blackened by soot.
A quarter hour later, as he strode through the brick archway at the front of the station, David was accosted by a woman and given a white feather. He looked at her, and laughed, then in a loud voice he addressed the shaming crowd she had gathered. "Let me get this right. I survive two chlorine gas attacks at Ypres, then I need thirty-two stitches to close a wound in my arse, and later another fifty-seven to stitch my shrapnel-shredded face back together. Then I evade capture and escape through Germany to Switzerland, and instead of remaining there as required by their treaty of neutrality, I evade again and come back here to prepare for redeployment to continue our fight against the Germans."
He doffed his hat, bowed to the woman and presented the feather back to her. "Meanwhile, this cowardly woman and her cohorts are doing nothing for the war effort except standing here and insulting people like me. Might I suggest instead of doing this, she helps with the care of the tens of thousands who have been wounded." He turned and pointed back into the station. "There are several rail cars filled with them in there. They need your attention. They need everybody's attention. All of you."
He put his hat on, turned and walked toward the two applauding men, one in green livery.
YOU ARE READING
Back In ActionHistorical Fiction
In the early months of the First World War, a young Canadian soldier uses quick thinking and ingenuity to evade capture after being wounded fighting in Flanders. While escaping through Germany to the Swiss border, he becomes intimately entwined with...