Friday 13th Part 2: Three Birthdays From The End Of The World

Wednesday commenced with troubled dreams of data modelling and bumping into forgotten friends. Left brain, right brain… it’s 6 AM and who knew what pocket, bag or case I’d shoved my passport into, this was no time to count coins. I was a touch tired, certainly cranky and hoping desperately that all I needed was my morning coffee so I could explain myself better. The queue at Pret and the typically horrific price gouging in the Eurostar terminal certainly didn’t help as my mind queried the bill three times over. Oh well, needs must…

As I stumbled out of Christmas and attempted to stride out into the new decade it soon became clear where to start this tale. I was tempted to begin with a strange old visit to my mum’s where I met up with my oldest friend for a fun night of drinks and conversation. It was a weekend reminiscent of the best times of my worst days that ended with me accidentally trapping myself in my childhood bedroom, thankfully I escaped. I was also tempted to talk about a crazy family catch up where my dad and sister fought and made up more times in an evening then most manage in a lifetime. Despite these pathetic misadventures my top contender appeared to be Valentine’s Day when I was so engrossed in a mixture of work and securing tickets football tickets I missed the early warning signs that our boiler was spewing out water through a cracked connector that held together a multitude of copper pipes. How quickly things moved from Whatever Works to birthday wishes and hoping we could wash our hands of this whole damn pandemic.

The second half of February contained a couple of weeks that were designed to test the patience of even the most learned holy man. Two weeks filled with slimy estate agents valuing our flat who ranged from the slickest Jordan Belfort-alike to the most incompetent down on his luck Gil Gunderson type. With a leaking boiler squirting water, dripping and moaning into the night we hoped for a miracle. We called out for a disciple of Vincent Ferrer and our prayers were answered, at least in part. I was glad to see the back of February and couldn’t wait to dive headlong and carefree into March. There were birthday celebrations, a trip to France and the magic of the cup to look forward to. But what I should have realised was that that the curse of Friday 13th was just as alive and well in 2020 as it had been in 2019.

Whilst my Pret coffee at the Eurostar terminal wasn’t exactly great that Wednesday morning, it certainly seemed to have worked to get me started on this tale. It was Tuesday 3rd March and after attempting the most epic fail of a team lunch that nobody wanted to participate in, where every dietary requirement, food allergy, dislike or other culinary grievance carefully conspired to form an hour of hunger inducing indecision. Instead, the team lunch ended up being half the group grabbing a take away box from the canteen and rest of us waiting for our usual dose of Chasing Dragon Chinese take away.

Thankfully the rest of the afternoon raced by and it was time to attend the Chelsea vs Liverpool FA Cup quarter final. By now I was convinced this match was cursed. From the fiasco with the ticket prices being lowered, raised and lowered again, to my failed attempt to take my friend N to the game. Then of course, our boiler starting its leak no sooner had my ticket been booked. If only it had ended there but with my wounds still fresh, a spoonful of salt was rubbed happily into them by the Royal Mail as my ticket got lost in the post. So rather than my usual 2019-20 post-work, pre-match ritual of a tasty Westfield food court dinner from one of the many now excellent eateries, followed by the crush of the tube I instead left early to visit the box office and claim my replacement ticket.

Despite the early hour there was an expectant buzz around the Bridge and I soon had that golden match ticket in my hands.

Due to my unplanned late lunch and having some time to kill I decided to head back on to the tube to sit in Wholefoods Kensington for a peaceful pre-game coffee and snack. I read a few chapters more of my borrowed Murakami and all the stress of February slowly seeped out of my body between warming sips of my Americano. I wonder if anyone matched my pre-game routine that evening?

With twilight turned to dark night I headed back to the Bridge where the atmosphere was well and truly rocking for what would turn out to be an epic night in the cup.

There was a certain irony that evening, the two goal scorers were probably the two worst players on the pitch, the pantomime villain between the sticks was actually Liverpool’s back up man and not the expected Chelsea number one, who instead pulled off a heroic triple save with the game closely poised. After she sent me a message asking if I’d seen Willian’s goal I had to confess to N that I’d managed to secure a ticket to the game I’d hoped to see with her. Somehow after a season where the margin calls often didn’t quite go our way, things for once worked out and as the full time whistle blew those missed chances and that late onslaught from the men in red proved insignificant. Climbing down from my perch high in the East Stand I walked alone, carefree in an army of triumphant blue support back towards Earls Court. It was around midnight by the time I returned home to Canterbury via the high speed and a much needed Starbucks pick me up. Things were getting better at last, at least that’s what I thought.

After breakfast on the Eurostar I had an hour or so to work on this tale before we arrived into Lille. This gave me time to reflect on a weekend where all the warning signs of what was to come were present, but not only did I just chose to wash my hands of them and it was like I did so without even using the smallest squirt of soap! It was morning on Friday 6th March and after a quick coffee in town at Caffe Nero following some last minute birthday shopping, Anne-So and I left home for London for celebration number one. Our good friend S who we’d be staying with was celebrating her birthday and we were determined to help her out.

Camden is a strange place even at the best of times and arriving at the Chalk Farm end I found the deserted day time vibe even more unusual than the often seen snaking queue to enter the Roundhouse, the organised pub crawls and people that spend their whole night at the pub outside the pub on the street corner. We dropped our things and other than me getting annoyed with our friend S like she had some kind of paranoid OCD for making us wash our hands as soon as we entered her flat, all was well. At least it gave me a chance to sing her happy birthday!

We started the festivities with some humongous slices of cake and well crafted coffees from Luminary Bakery.

My carrot cake was sweet, moist and filling; it provided a nice contrast to the mild acidity of the black coffee I’d chosen to accompany it.

We were lucky to have the Luminary Bakery right on S’s doorstep.

Happily stuffed with coffee and cake we set off on a walk. It was a beautiful early spring day of bright sunshine and clear skies. We passed through the calm affluence of Primrose Hill and into the all too familiar St John’s Wood. I was curious to see what had become of my old shop but while many of the stores I’d become familiar with over my six years on the high street had been refurbished or replaced, my old place was still sat as empty as the day I helped close it down nearly two years ago. I couldn’t believe that four years had passed since I last ran that shop and I no longer recognised a single face on the street.

We continued our walk, passing along Marylebone High Street with its designer boutiques and fine dining restaurants including my birthday favourite, Trishna. We made a quick pit stop at Selfridges before checking out the Paul Smith Sale Shop in the hope of finding a gift for my father in law. The happy memories I’d spent with a good friend walking around this area had now been restored to a fond nostalgia rather than the melancholic sadness of the year before. I promised myself not to look at anything other than the wallets in Paul Smith, knowing that if I strayed from searching for my Father-in-law’s birthday gift, I would ended up seeing something for myself. With the prices hard to resit I told myself that today’s bargain was really tomorrow’s unnecessary expense in disguise!

We continued walking through Mayfair and towards Regents Street. It was really a perfect day to stroll for hours on end through the finest parts of London. The streets were relatively quiet and eventually we found ourselves at Tibits. It was too early for dinner but not to share a birthday drink and partake in a little people watching for an hour or so. At least it was until the fire alarm went off… Perhaps they were just trying to tell us to get a move on and clear the tables for supper!

Around 5:30 we braved the Soho streets with the hope of a decent pre-theatre dinner. Not being my birthday weekend, drinks and dining had not been planned to within an inch of their lives, so that meant dealing with all the nonsense of trying to get a decent meal in Soho on a Friday night. That act of futility was perfectly summed up with our attempts to eat at the well reviewed Sri-Lankan restaurant, Paradise. First off to book you needed to be a group of four or more, with the rest of the restaurant reserved for walk ins. We tried to walk in at 5:45, a mere 15 minutes after opening. Whilst there were no tables for the night we were given the option to wait whilst they decided how they were going to set up a queuing system for the bar seating that was currently completely empty! We quickly moved on to have a look at a French restaurant but nobody fancied the menu and we couldn’t quite bring ourselves to stop at Princi for a pizza since they sold out to a certain popular coffee company.

Thankfully my third suggestion worked a treat, Wun’s Tea Room.

It looked and felt like we’d stepped into a classic Wong Kar Wai 1960s era Hong Kong film.

There were Cantonese cover versions playing on the old fashioned stereo system, an extensive and expensive drinks menu fashioned in the style of an old newspaper and they had a wonderful Insta friendly neon sign on the back wall to give that famous green glow to your photos. Best of all we had a table till 7:30 which was when the play we had tickets for that evening started.

We were assigned a table in the downstairs dining room adjacent to the bar and began to tick off our menu choices.

Food and drinks came at a rapid pace and on the whole did not disappoint.

Anne-So and S devoured their whole prawn spring rolls, saving just their poor, sad little heads.

Despite their underwhelming write up in Jay Rayner’s review I felt the brussels sprouts had a nice hit of chilli and were cooked with just the right amount of bite remaining.

However, what came next were all highlights.

Whilst I felt Jay was wrong about the sprouts, he was spot on with his review of the delicious sugar skin pork; crisp and sweet on the top, soft and succulent thereafter, the portion was generous but we made light work of it.

It was all delicious and the only regret was that there was not time or budget to try any more.

We finished the meal with some average Hong Kong style egg tarts and with hindsight we’d have probably been better off going across the road to Café de Nata.

We settled up via the excellent bill splitting setup left on our table and headed out to the Gielgood for a few hours of not quite Shakespeare with David Mitchell and Co performing Upstart Crow.

I was apprehensive about the bargain basement ‘standing‘ tickets we had secured but in the end the view was excellent and it was not too uncomfortable.

The play was as stupidly funny as the TV series and kept largely to the same structure which made it familiarly enjoyable. As a side note I though the poor guy in the bear suit was particularly brave and surprisingly nimble! We got the bus back to S’s and crashed after a perfect day of walking, eating and entertainment!

Saturday followed Friday like our TGV followed the Eurostar at Lille and perhaps as pride comes before a fall. I started the day by heading out to Miel Bakery for a pastry run.

The bakery itself had gone for a minimalist design with everything being made fresh on site and put immediately on show. From what I could make out from the food on display, the take away lunch items looked like being decent too. However, with the crazy amount of competition between Tottenham Court Road and Warren Street for a tasty lunch or breakfast it’s hard to know if I’d find the time to return. Though writing this a month and a half later there’s nothing I’d love more than some quality Viennoiserie to accompany the various delicious coffee brews I’ve been trying during lockdown. The second sign of who I thought was now a Covid crazy S reared its ugly head on my return. Though with hindsight I should say sensible head. She was again annoyed at me for not washing my hands immediately on returning to her flat. I reluctantly caved and channelled my inner Boris even though it was nobody’s birthday that day.

After breakfast we took the tube to meet some other friends for lunch at Market Hall Victoria. As these two friends have the complete opposite culinary preferences then somewhere like Market Hall couldn’t have been more perfect as a lunch location. Three of us went for Flank and two for Monty’s Deli. Nobody was disappointed.

I had an outstandingly good smoked beef naan that was hot with chilli sambal, sour with pickled veg, served on a crisp, beef-fat flavoured naan topped with soft buttery smoked beef and just a hint of sweetness from the pomegranate yogurt sauce.

It was a challenge to eat but a taste explosion with every bite. Anne-So had the classic salt beef Reuben from Monty’s Deli with a side of fries, what makes their sandwiches so special are the both the quality and quantity of the meat. It was hard not to try and steal a bite of perfectly cured salt beef sandwich! After having had my fill of beer and bread I made for a much needed toilet break only to see an extreme case of what was clearly competitive hand-washing going on in the men’s room. At the time it made me laugh but it also naively filled me with confidence that If people were treating the risk of getting Corona virus that seriously even in the trendy food courts of London we’d have nothing to worry about…

After lunch we took the scenic route to the V & A via the back streets, embassies and a quick cut across Sloane Street. We had come to view the exquisite Kimono: Kyoto To Catwalk exhibition which did not disappoint.

The rooms were just on the brink of being overcrowded with a few sections poorly laid out.

I thought the last room when the kimonos were released from their glass cabinets and the exhibition space opened up was the most pleasing.

After a quick look in the gift shop where I secretly snagged an upgraded birthday card for Anne-So it was time for coffee and cake. Apparently the entire population of West London agreed with our suggestion and it was a struggle to find a table anywhere half decent without being quoted a waiting time far longer than it takes to drink a cup of coffee and eat a slice of cake. We then circled the lesser spots of South Kensington, these were also either full or we were met with indifference for daring to be an odd numbered group of five in a world that prefers an even number. So we ended up for the first time in years at a Carluccios, the one place that was happy to accommodate us. When we arrived it was well before dinner. By the time our chosen cakes that just so happened to be sat happily in the display case right next to us turned up with our coffees, late afternoon drinks had become a full on dinner service. I’m unsure as to what caused the delay to our order but our second server was at least apologetic for the inconvenience. The ladies were not hugely impressed, personally I couldn’t give a toss. It was almost certain that the woman who took our original order was new and potentially had been sent on break or somewhere else as trade picked up, as after she took our order we did not see her again. Unfortunately some people treat a small service mistake like the end of the world. We weren’t really in a rush that afternoon and it was Carluccios afterall, not tea at the Ritz or so the saying goes. I suppose that would most likely be the last time we’d eat at a Carluccios, thanks for the memories…

We parted ways after cake. Our friends C and D headed down to the depths of the Piccadilly Line and we walked off to Waitrose to pick up the ingredients for a light dinner of charcuterie to accompany the nicely chilled bottle of champagne S had waiting for us in the fridge. We finished the evening watching the classic Wes Anderson film Darjeeling Limited which I had completely forgotten. It was a great way to round off the day allowing us to happily reminisce over our time in India together and our longing to return one day soon. It also had me hastily looking up why we don’t own a single Wes Anderson film as part of our collection.

Lazy Sunday rolled round and by this time we’d decided to take things easy. After a light breakfast we packed our bags and took the slow route from Camden via the canal to Kings Cross for an early lunch at Dishoom. The Wes Anderson the night before had clearly got us in the mood for Indian food! It was another lovely morning, though the weather started to turn as we arrived at Coal Drops Yard. After the usual Dishoom double queue and exaggerated wait time nonsense we had our table and were ready to order. As was often the case we pretended we didn’t all want the same things till it turned out we pretty much did!

The buttery pau bhaji was shared, the crispy okra fries shared, the delicious black daal shared, though the creamy mattar paneer, fragrant Awadhi lamb biryani and rich chicken ruby were heavily guarded by their respective owners…

I recently had a go at cooking up a chicken ruby from the Dishoom cook book after seeing my friend’s husband show it off on Instagram a month or so earlier. Today this gave me mixed feelings. I knew when I made mine I’d screwed up the fried garlic for my sauce and also added too much honey as the restaurant sauce was definitely better balanced and was thankfully missing the acrid smell and taste of burnt garlic. However, the chicken left me very underwhelmed. The version in the book required a long marinade before the meat is grilled and added to the sauce. This leaves a wonderful char on the outside and the chicken pieces soft and juicy on the inside.

Sadly the chicken in our curry was missing that sweet char-grilled flavour and instead tasted a little dry like it was just cooked for too long in the sauce. What a shame.

After settling the bill we parted ways, I wonder when we’ll see each other next? I then spent the train journey home enjoying a rare easy victory for Chelsea against Everton, though such is life that the stream cut out when pretty much every goal went in. After the joy of watching the midweek cup victory vs Liverpool live I was expecting the usual screw up that seems to have followed every victory this year, but today it was different. Thank you Everton for being so awful.

I spent Monday and Tuesday at work learning to model (predictive data modelling that is) and my head was in pieces, hopefully the new neural pathways would take. My work load looked horrific but at least my project had become clear and the excitement of putting out some cases from this avenue of exploration was thrilling to the point it would make the awful work to get there worthwhile. Monday’s despair was Tuesdays pleasure. I was glad I’d have a week or so to recover. Little did I know this would be the last time I’d meet up with my team face to face for the foreseeable future.

After having my brain sewn back in to my skull, I met Anne-So at S’s for a Tuesday night dinner. After a brief rest and review of the options we headed out for some high grade junk food at The Diner.

The wait staff on the other hand were quite entertaining; any money it was the managers night off that evening! Despite the interesting service routine, everything came out correctly and in good time, so perhaps I’m being a touch harsh and the boss was hiding in the kitchen that evening. My Diablo burger was messy with sauce and gooey American cheese going everywhere with a just few slices of crispy bacon and a bit of bun trying to hold it all together. I also had a basket of my favourite Hanger Fries that were rich with yet more molten cheese and another huge helping of sweet and sour burger sauce. It wasn’t quite up to the hot mess level of Patty & Bun perfection but we finished our meal happily full. We returned to S’s and crashed for the night knowing we had an awfully early start the next day.

Trains: Eurostar 9110 & TGV 9826
Depart: London St Pancras International
Arrive: Lille Europe 09:26
Depart: Lille Europe
Arrive: Valence TGV 14:44
Seats: Coach 3, Seats 31 & 32 and Coach 6, Seats 37 & 38 (Standard Class)
Locomotives: Class 373 Eurostar e300 Top Speed 186mph
and TGV Réseau Top Speed 320kmh

I’m now sat on the TGV and we’ve just pulled into Aeroport Charles de Gaulle, I hope you’ll soon be up to speed as to how we got here.

Whilst the Pininfarina designed carriage interiors look excellent I’m not sure who tested the beautiful design for practicality. The fold out tables are huge and set incredibly low. It was a struggle to have any room for both legs and stomachs with the table down and I’m hardly the biggest or tallest… What were they thinking!

At least our coffee and croissants from Pret did the trick.

A few days later down the tracks we stopped at Friday 13th and for the first time we genuinely considered that maybe we shouldn’t have taken the train to France. It was hard to believe it when the announcement was made that the nation was closing down shops, schools and planning to restrict movement. We’d not really thought too much about what was going on prior till that Friday. We’d told ourselves it was just a few days in France to see family, well clear of the Italian border and a mighty long plane ride away from China or South Korea. I also got a call from work stating that the office was now closed and not to come in when I came back from holiday. That denial of the whole situation really came home to roost on Friday 13th, it was the first time we genuinely considered that we might not be coming home on time.

Just 24 hours earlier on Thursday 12th March it was all so normal, handshakes or three kisses on the cheeks to greet and a meal at Jack and Jill in Valence for Anne-So’s birthday. The restaurant screamed comfort, from the childhood memory of a nursery rhyme and yes, I’m well aware that they met a sticky end and by that I don’t mean they hung around for dessert either. The menu was full of classic French fancies with a hint of Thai spice and flair all rounded off with some comforting hot British mess on the dessert menu.

Anne-So and her dad F ordered the Thai soup, a warm orange liquid fragrant with lemongrass concealing the prawn filled wonton dumplings.
I had the goats cheese salad, with a tart dressing and sweet onion chutney making the perfect contrast for the warm soft cheese housed in its crisp pastry basket.

All senses were set to mild stun and our course programmed for comfort town.

For our mains Anne-So and I enjoyed a plate of tender spiced veal that melted in the mouth, accompanied with aromatic couscous and a lightly spiced vegetable stew.

F had a fine plate of fish, served interestingly skin side down in case the beautiful bright red scales from the filet caused alarm.

For dessert Anne-So had a sticky toffee pudding in the form of a muffin, top removed and placed to the side for convenience with a warming scoop of rum and raisin ice cream and a lake of caramel sauce.
There was also a chocolate fondant on the menu and having seen the gooey molten core ooze out on to the plate of the man at the table next to me my choice was already made. I was not disappointed!

F had a lemon tart, he enjoyed it enough that there was an element of sadness on his face that I had not taken a picture of his dessert to show it off.

I suppose we should have guessed this trip was going to be a bit odd long before we finally did. Though little did we know by sundown on Saturday 14th March how far things had gone out of our control. Anyway, if our eyes had been less tired we’d have known back on our departure day, Wednesday 11th that things were wrong. How could the only hitch to our journey be a poorly devised tray table on a near empty Eurostar. As that clearly wasn’t enough what happened shortly after our arrival should surely have told us to go straight back home. My Father-in-law was cooking up quite the dinnertime disaster. F often has a way of explaining things that causes my blood to boil unnecessarily. We had yet to meet his new lodger and from my half listened and poorly understood descriptions I had painted a picture of my worst nightmare, a certain kind of person I’d dread dealing with during my retail days, last seen wearing this seasons finest tinfoil hat and setting fire to those street lights infiltrated with Chinese powered 5G masts (or light bulbs to you and I). Allegedly we were supposed to cook an impromptu dinner for her, so my Father in-law ran through a list of her supposed food allergies and preferences which meant we’d have to exclude all non-organic food along with wheat, dairy and meat for our supper. However, it turned out he’d got most of these requirements wrong and for the ones he’d correctly understood he’d described them using the wrong words. It further transpired that despite him taking us to the supermarket to buy the ingredients, she was actually back at his making us dinner and not the other way round!

Sometimes mix ups have benefits too, every bite of our dinner tasted that little bit better, every travel anecdote we shared that night had a deeper meaning and although we definitely saw the world in different ways, we were happy to spend a few hours talking with F’s lodger. Added to that, F’s house was as clean and tidy as I’d ever seen it, it looked different, smelt different and felt different and not just because the one photo on display with Anne-So and I in it had mysteriously vanished from sight! For some reason I felt compelled to watch Liverpool lose to Athletico Madrid in the Champions League that night even though I tend to find both teams rather dull to watch. Despite the match running into extra time and the hours difference I still stayed up past midnight till Morata put the game to bed in the final moments of the match. I was glad I saw the game as that would end up being one of my last opportunities to watch live football for some time.

This strange yet familiar house was not the only change we had coming to us as we drove towards isolation in Ardeche on Thursday evening. My Sister in-law was opening her new business, Epiceyrieux the next day and showing up my stupidity and lack of commercial acumen it turned out opening a food shop on Friday 13th during a global pandemic is actually a really good idea if the takings were anything to go by. Good people deserve all the luck in the world and I hope her luck continues till she has outgrown her share of this enterprise.

So after visiting her new shop this strange Friday 13th continued, we’d got used to sharing a house with our in-laws on our trips to France and having them around us nearly all the time.

For me at least, the need to switch off and hideaway was often all encompassing on these trips across the channel but for these few days it was the opposite. Our niece was at school, and her parents were both at work. At least we had the dog for company! Him and a good book. After months of saying you must read some Murakami my boss finally lent me some of his novels. I’d already finished the bittersweet blues of Norwegian Wood before we took this trip and had become thoroughly immersed in his writing. I always enjoy art that makes you want to consume and experience other art, even more so art that inspires you to make your own. Well, hopefully this tale of mine has been all the better for it. For this trip I’d moved onto Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. The structure of both the novels were similar, as was the style. I knew something was going on in the protagonists head but how it got there made for the most fascinating dystopian sci-fi story. I have to say I’m now a fan and hopefully I can read my way through a few more of his works.

I started writing the next part of this tale as we sped in the direction of home at 300kmh with the hope that all hell had not broken loose! Having finished with Murakami I was back on Paul Theroux, though little did I know that their paths would cross in Tokyo towards the end of Ghost Train to the Eastern Star. After a welcome tour of Istanbul through the eyes of some great writers, two of whom I now hope to read it’s time to return to my tale. F had secretly slipped off early on Friday 13th for some illicit birthday celebrations of his own, but that’s another story for another time and when Saturday 14th came along there were unusually for me, no sporting distractions other than a little bit of child wrangling.

We met a man who had lost his dogs atop the summit and also experienced an unfortunate childhood accident. The saying about who never to work with never rang a more truthful note.

I had plugged in my headphones and enjoyed a brief and beautiful respite from the chaos.

The walk back down was not as dangerous as we thought it might be.

We drove home and ordered Chinese take away from Restaurant Duy-Khanh, glad in the fact we’d changed our plans as this was the last night before non-essential businesses were to be closed due to the pandemic. Our portions were bountiful, the quality acceptable.

It was a tasty meal which we quickly devoured. If this was to be our last meal together before the end of the world I was glad we could be together, just the five of us.

Sunday 15th on the other hand was filled with the fear of being trapped. Borders were closing, planes grounded and curfews cropped up across Europe. The western world began various stages of Corona induced lockdown unless of course you were Britain… Though surprisingly in France it was election day with the local elections in full swing. The reasons they went ahead despite the Corona crisis were as politically complicated as the voting system itself which I still do not understand. All the more so after it was apparent my brother-in-law had been victorious in his contest despite being both the most and least popular candidate! The expected turn out was just 18% which was not as bad as it sounded as this was only marginally down on the previous round of local elections.

By the late afternoon F was back with us as we drove to the polling station for N to cast her vote and for us to enjoy a lovely walk in the open air.

The dogs had a whale of a time and elbow bumping was in full effect. But how many bumps were correct?

We drove back to the in-law’s house and I played outside with Little N for a full hour; kicking a ball up and down the street, having a secret chuckle at F who looked like he’d not kicked a football for pleasure even once in his life. So to make it up to him I chipped a pass just over his head and was gutted Little N missed my one moment of footballing skill and his reaction to it. Little N then played acrobat for a bit before she took a small tumble in the dusky lamp lit street and it was at this point she finally decided to take my advice and head home.

We’d noticed earlier in the evening that despite the restrictions supposedly being in place, the two pizzerias in town were still open for business. Not feeling in the mood to cook we decided to order in again. Were they the greatest pizzas you’d ever eat, hell no! But after my lunchtime fiasco where I thought I’d set the oven on fire I was done cooking. It also helped that I was also a touch tipsy from whisky and wine!

Of course I polished mine off in no time at all. These trips to France regularly remind me of my lack of self control. Put something tasty in front of me and I’ll no doubt eat it till it makes me burst from one end or the other. Having spent the weekend frantically checking I noticed that our trains home had not been put on the daily list of cancellations. I knew I’d sleep well that night. I was not wrong.

On Monday 16th March we attempted our return home to the UK and despite all the unknown unknowns regarding the virus I was feeling strangely confident. I knew there was a strong possibility I might get sick, a reasonable chance I’d get lonely and almost no chance I’d go hungry. On the other hand I was certain I would write, watch and consume whatever inspiration I could find. I was also certain that I’d be happier and saner back in the UK then if we had stayed in France. Either way with the office now closed, my work would not be affected if we stayed on the continent but my mental health certainly would have been. I think initially Anne-So felt the opposite way, until of course it was time for lunch. Now back in Valence and with no guests or outsiders to impress, F was in fine form. Fussing round the kitchen for no reason whilst we pulled together a meal from the leftovers in his fridge.

I put the pans on to boil, Anne-So translated the oven with its bizarre rewind buttons and F offered us two big bags of nuts to shove our hands in to. As was par for the course when one announced that food was ready F did his usual disappearing act where he’d suddenly be buried in urgent tasks of ruffling papers, running taps and releasing his inner foley artist from the garage. What more can I say, every movement from our cry of, “À Table” until we loaded the dishwasher was accompanied with sound effects. They say some people have a face for radio, but rarely that they have an inner foley artist desperate to be heard. The whistling, humming, lip smacking, sucking, slurping, mouth full of food whilst sharing a rambling un-pausing monologue of random nothingness in our faces. It was like what would happen if you connected my mum to an amplifier and went full Spinal Tap by turning her up to 11. I tried to listen more to his tales to practice my French comprehension but I could make little sense as topics veered from cats and bins to neighbours along with their extended families, none of whom we knew. It turned out that whilst I’d missed much of the detail, I’d gotten the gist. By this point my head was pounding, the smell of the empty yoghurt pot from Anne-So’s plate was making me nauseous and thankfully it was time to load that darned dishwasher and be on our way.

I wrote this as we were half an hour away from Lille, the British PM had just told us to behave like sensible adults and it was clear to me if that wasn’t happening before his announcement then it would certainly take more than a few stern words to change the mentality of a nation. I wondered what, if anything we’d find in the supermarket when we returned home and again at what the next few weeks might bring. At that moment I was just looking forward to being on the Eurostar, catching the high speed home, having a wonderful nights sleep and spending my two remaining days off work to get into gear for this new and hopefully temporary reality.

Trains: TGV 9864 & Eurostar 9163
Depart: Valence TGV 16:15
Arrive: Lille Europe 19:58
Depart: Lille Europe 21:00
Arrive: London St Pancras International 21:33
Seats: Coach 15, Seats 35 & 36 and Coach 4, Seats 32 & 33 (Standard Class)
Locomotives: TGV Réseau Top Speed 320kmh
and Class 374 Eurostar (Siemans Velaro) e320 Top Speed 200mph

We arrived at Lille to the news France was shutting up shop from tomorrow at noon.

Everyone from the transport police to the check in agent was watching Macron’s address as we joined the handful of others queuing for the Eurostar.

In the end we made it out of France as planned on the last train of the day, with 16 hours to spare before the boarders were closed.

I’d never seen the station at Lille so eerily still in 20 years of cross boarder travel, the departure area so empty, the train so quiet. The relief of making it through security and passport control was immense. The happiness of hearing that boarding call for London was Christmas and Birthday rolled into one glorious gift.

The calm of rushing along at 200mph across the land and under the sea was almost overwhelming.
We arrived early into St Pancras and I had time to pick up a much needed coffee from a subdued and socially distanced Starbucks before we got the high speed train home to Canterbury.
In all my life it never felt so good to be home.

The amount of things I did during those two weeks that now make me cringe are hard to believe: from being one of 40,000 in a crowd at the football, to those meals out in busy London restaurants, my opposition to the hand-washing, a not strictly necessary trip abroad and a mad dash home before the boarder closed. At the same time I’m also glad I got to do all those things, it made the following month significantly easier. Despite all the issues from politics to strikes, a double dose of Friday 13th and even a pandemic I have to say I’ve been incredibly lucky the last six months. Since my birthday at the end of 2019 I’ve managed to spend quality time with all of my close friends and family, eaten some amazing and delicious food, felt the inspiration of art and the rush of the crowd. Touch wood, everyone I know is healthy, most are employed and all are just about sane. Until the next time, thanks for reading.

Friday 13th Part 1 and 2

One thought on “Friday 13th Part 2: Three Birthdays From The End Of The World

  1. This had me laughing to tears! Your writing is so good and your descriptions accurately funny!
    We are very lucky indeed.


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