It’s so hot even the cicadas have given up.
The heat makes the air shimmer above the tracks. The sun beats down on the cracked concrete of the platform. There’s the faintest gust of a breeze - hardly worthy of the name, but just enough to set the dust dancing and send a faint smell of lavender and thyme down from the hills.
A young woman sprawles in what passes for shade, with a backpack against her knees. Her hair is gathered in a messy bun from which sweaty strands are escaping. She checks her watch and then page seventy-four of her Thomas Cook Continental Timetable, which assures her that there are three trains a day from this station and that the second one should have left fifteen minutes ago. She checks her watch again. Bites a fingernail. Stares down the tracks, where nothing is moving.
The station building is just a dilapidated cottage on the edge of the platform. The roof is missing a few tiles and the windows are boarded up. There’s no waiting room, no gruff old man selling tickets, not even a vending machine. On one of the walls, amid the peeling plaster, a railway timetable has been tacked up. The young woman saunters over, hoping it will be miraculously up to date now that she reads it for the fourth time. No such luck, of course. But as she looks down the platform, she sees she’s not alone.
There’s an old lady there, sitting on a bench. Her back is ramrod straight and she has a handbag in her lap.
Oh, what the hell, the young woman says to herself. She might as well try talking to the locals. If she hadn’t been so afraid of missing the train, she might’ve strolled into the village and found a nice little cafe where she could have a cold citron pressé and watch the old men play pétanque.
As she walks over to the old lady, she is acutely aware of her dusty shorts and unwashed t-shirt. The old lady is wearing a neat little blouse and a matching skirt.
“Bonjour,” she says, and realises immediately that this was a bad idea. That’s the limit of her French. She shouldn’t have used her entire French vocabulary in the first sentence. Or she should have paid attention in school. “Do you speak English?”
The old lady says something incomprehensible. It sounds apologetic.
The young woman tries again, speaking slowly this time, hoping a few words will filter though. “I am waiting for the train to Bonneval-sur-Drac. Do you know when it will arrive?”
“Bonneval-sur-Drac?” the old lady says, pronouncing it slightly differently. She nods and taps her chest. Then she shows the young woman her watch and tuts dramatically.
“Is it normally late?”
“Normal? Oui!” The old lady nods, and with a single gesture she manages to convey that this little village in the middle of nowhere is always forgotten and ignored, and of course she understands that there can’t be a regular service like between the larger towns, but the train company doesn’t have to be so rude about it!
Then she touches the young woman’s wrist. “America?”
The young woman shakes her head. “I’m from Wales, actually. I don’t know if that’s the French word. Hang on.”
She drags her backpack over and grabs her Thomas Cook from the top pocket. There’s a map of Europe on page four, and she points out Wales. The old lady runs a finger over the railway lines, from Wales to London, to Dover, then across the ferry to Calais, to Paris, to Lyon, and on to some unmarked part of southern France.
The old lady asks something. She’s speaking slowly and pronouncing her words with exaggerated care, and the young woman still doesn’t understand a word of it.
“I’m just travelling,” she says. “I hope that’s what you’re asking. It’s a holiday - a vacation?”
She reaches into the top pocket of her backpack again, and pulls out her Interrail ticket which she shows to the old lady. It is very clearly a train ticket, valid for four weeks. She taps the map of Europe to emphasise her point.
“Oh!” the old lady exclaims. She asks something, but French and English are just too different, and the young woman doesn’t understand until the old lady folds her hands together by the side of her head, tilts her head sideways, and gives an exaggerated snore.
“Too poor to sleep in hotels, I’m afraid,” says the young woman with a laugh. “I sometimes stay in youth hostels or pubs. Or I camp, I brought a tent. And oh, you have no idea what I’m saying, do you?”
The old lady gives an eloquent shrug, and the young woman realises she’s not the only one who wishes she had bothered learn another language.
“I can show you.” The young woman opens her backpack, and digs through the tangle of laundry and packets of biscuits that make up every backpacker’s belongings. She finally unearths a small leatherbound sketchbook and opens it to show the old lady some of the drawings she made. She’s not much of an artist, but there on the page is unmistakably a tent pitched under a few pine trees.
“That was yesterday night,” she says, gesturing north. “Up in those hills there. I took the train to, well, I can’t really pronounce it. Then hiked up into that bit of forest.”
The old lady lays a finger on the corner of the page and murmurs a question.
“Yeah, sure, have a look through.”
The old lady turns the pages one by one, studying each sketch with interest, while the young woman points out towns and places on her railway map and keeps up a running commentary. It doesn’t matter that the old lady can’t understand, it feels more natural to keep talking.
“This is obviously the Eiffel tower. I wanted to go to Paris first. Can’t think why. No offence, but it’s horrible. Perhaps it was just the heat or the crowds. Anyway, I kept to the smaller towns after that. I spent a week in Germany. That’s the Black Forest, and that is Marburg. There’s a castle there, looks like something out of a fairytale, doesn’t it? I went to Switzerland after that, but I didn’t really stop. Too pricey. So I just carried on down to France.”
The old lady stops at a somewhat wonky sketch of a village tucked away under a frowning mountain and bursts into a flood of French.
“That’s in the Alps, in one of the national parks. I wish I could have stayed longer and explored a bit, but I don’t have any mountaineering gear with me.”
“Haute Meylan!” the old lady says, still looking at the page. She’s smiling softly.
“Yes, that was the name of the village. Do you know it?”
In response, the old lady taps her chest, and then points out a smudge of a house.
“You’re from there?”
And that’s the moment that the train finally decides to arrive. The 14:25 to Bonneval-sur-Drac ends up leaving around a quarter past three, but neither of the passengers who embark seem to mind.
The young woman has hastily stuffed her belongings into her backpack. She swings it up into the luggage rack and takes a seat opposite the old lady.
“Enough about my trip, though,” she says. She gestures to the old lady, to the train, and points out of the window down the tracks. “Why are you going to Bonneval-sur-Drac?”
The old lady doesn’t have a sketchbook, but she does have remarkably expressive hands. It’s the strangest game of charades the young woman has ever played. She slowly pieces together the old lady’s life from the wedding ring she wears on a chain around her neck and the way she smiles indulgently at a small boy who is sitting on the other side of the isle, pulling faces while his parents aren’t looking.
When they arrive at Bonneval-sur-Drac half an hour later, the young woman helps the old lady down onto the platform.
“Are those your grandchildren over there?” the young woman asks, as she hoists her backpack onto her shoulders. Two young boys are running down the platform towards them.
The old lady nods and smiles. With a little wave of her hand, she manages to imply that the world is big and exciting and there is something to see everywhere.
“I have something for you.” The young woman digs out her sketchbook again and carefully tears out the page with the drawing of Haute Meylan, the little Alpine village. It’s just a few streaks of graphite on a grubby page, but the old lady takes it with both hands and presses it carefully against her heart.
“Merci,” says the old lady.
And just like that, the young woman realises that she knew two words of French all along.
“Merci to you too. And goodbye!” she says.
Then she’s off, leaving the old lady with her grandkids. She knows what she’ll be sketching tonight.