ROBINSON’S GRAND TOUR
It was Thursday afternoon. My Grand Tour had formally drawn to a close twelve days ago when I walked out of Central Station and back into the real world.
But I had felt continuously unsettled and uneasy since then. I’d lost sleep and had found it difficult to concentrate. Newspapers had gone unread and phone calls unmade and unanswered.
Instead, I’d spent twelve days looking at photographs and reading the notes I’d made along the way. I had a debilitating hunger and thirst to recall and re-live every moment of my adventure, to the exclusion of everything else.
So I had spent twelve days believing that this post-holiday sense of anti-climax - almost of grief - was normal and yet knowing that it wasn’t.
My old friend Brian had invited me to stay with him in London for a few days. Perhaps, he thought, our old stamping grounds there could wrap themselves around me like a bandage while the mysterious wound healed.
Which is why, on this sunny late Thursday afternoon in Spring, we were having ‘high tea’ in the immaculately-manicured grounds of the Oakley Court hotel, on the Thames near Windsor.
Brian was regaling me with stories of the hotel’s convoluted history - ‘the St Trinian’s films were shot here’ - but our table was right by the river and my eye was caught by two great crested grebes near the opposite bank. They were flirting and showing off to each other; it was that time of year, I suppose.
‘You have to hand it to great crested grebes, haven’t you?’ I said, darkly.
‘Do you? Why?’
‘Any creature that can make its way in the world with a name like great crested grebe deserves all the applause it can get’.
Brian looked at me across the scones and fairy-cakes. ‘I don’t understand’ he said.
‘I bet it was bullied in the evolutionary playground with a name like that. Great crested grebe. The wombats must have had a hard time, too. And the natterjack toads. And the kakapos…’
Brian came over and sat next to me.
He looked genuinely concerned, as well he might with jokes of that quality.
We sat in the comfort of communal silence for a while, as only old friends can. Then, as it was beginning to get dark, Brian suggested that it was time to drive back to London.
I glanced across the river. The grebes had gone.
We walked along the riverbank and across the lawns to the car park. I stood for a moment and looked at the view. It was so quintessentially English. The river was flowing lazily and comfortably eastwards to London. On the far side, a mass of osiers, hazels and alders were cover for blackbirds, mallards, coots, moorhens, sparrows, tits, water-rats, rabbits, foxes - and my grebes in their love-nest.
On this side, the tamed and clipped gardens of a country-house hotel. Tea and cucumber sandwiches, ivy-hung walls, geometrical flower-beds and a lovingly-maintained display of at least 40 types of tree. How glad I've always been that the English love trees so much!
All around me, new life and new hope were emerging with the advancing Spring, dipping their toes in its waters.
It was like something was being said.
At that precise moment, I realised why I was still in thrall to the Grand Tour. There was a kind of link missing from the story.
No, not a link. An outcome. It wasn't finished. There was something - someone - missing from the narrative.
The story was thus incomplete and my Spring was on hold.
‘I’m sorry, Brian. I have to go.’
‘Back. Just back.’
‘But you’ve only just returned!’
‘I know. But I have to go back.'
Psychologists of various hues - and Oscar Wilde - have advised that the very worst thing you can do when presented with temptation is to resist it. I was determined to avoid the 'if only...' syndrome and I tried to explain to Brian that I didn't want to live the rest of my days not knowing what may have happened if I'd given in to the urge to return to France.
And the only way to do that was to go.
I knew exactly what I needed to do.
I had no access to a computer there, so I called my friend John in Newcastle, who had.
I asked him if he would do something for me without asking any questions and without being even mildly critical. He said he would. That’s the sort of person he is.
‘Go onto the internet, then. Book me a journey back to France.’
‘Do it now. Please. Book me some tickets for Saturday.’
Almost without taking a breath, he asked me whereabouts in France I wanted to go.
‘Macon,’ I said, with no hesitation at all.
He asked me where that was. ‘It’s about halfway along the express line between Geneva and Paris.’
I heard him clicking and typing as he surfed the internet for me.
‘You’re sure about this?’
I told him I was.
‘Give me half an hour or so, then’.
True to his word, he called me in less than twenty minutes.
He’d done it. Thanks to the wonders of the internet - and the monumental inventiveness of Sir Timothy Berners-Lee - I was booked onto the early morning train on Saturday from Newcastle to London, then the midday Eurostar to Paris. Then...the mid-afternoon train to Macon. John had even printed off the tickets, which would be waiting for me at home the next day.
And here’s a funny thing.
As I boarded the dawn train to London two days later, it didn’t feel as if I was retracing my steps.
It didn’t feel as if I was simply revisiting an exciting recent experience. Or that I was continuing an old story.
No - these were new steps I was taking. This was a new story.
And it was only after I had reached Paris and had boarded the train for Macon that I realised I had forgotten to do something rather important.
I pulled out my phone and sent a text.
‘Er...tu es occupe ce weekend? J’espere non!’
It’s true, isn’t it? Not all those who wander are lost.