Tuesday, 3 September 2019

The Tunnel

The Tunnel

It is very difficult to choose which of the stories should be told first so here’s one I’m choosing because it came straight from a film.
I was stuck in a petrol station in Kortrijk, Belgium, in early August.
Kortrijk is a playground for me by this point, there are some messages I scrawled on lampposts and crash barriers and it has a mixed history of good lifts and long waits. I was brought there by a young French couple.
Think I waited there about 4 or 5 hours. The only memorable event was a man returning to his Porsche with a look of pleasant surprise. He was turning his head this way and that, if you’ve ever seen Goya’s depiction of Hannibal seeing the alps for the first time it was a similar level of pantomime disbelief. I sat there chuckling, imagining what he wanted to be heard saying to himself: “Wait, this can’t be my car? No, it can’t be!...but it’s a Porsche! Think about how expensive those are! Oh! The key works! It is my car!”
At some point a web designer lifted me up the road to what he thought was a better spot.
Well now. Better in what way?  I will let you decide, but I believe that every last liquid ounce of time that I have spent in a petrol station I would spend again for what happened in this place.

Just another petrol station. Probably about 7.30pm. Big crowd of football fans standing around smoking and getting tanked up. Few giggles and exchanges of looks as I stood there. After some time I walked into the shop. The station attendant was a man in his 30s with very short hair, square framed glasses and a bright and quizzical expression.
“Good evening, sir.”
 He was very polite and helpful. Exceedingly so, pointing out where I could get free water, and that if I wanted to use the facilities I should do that before buying anything and use the ticket to get a discount. After this exchange he asked: “Is that an Australian accent I detect, sir?”
I explained where I was from. He looked a little bit disappointed in himself and I assured him that a lot of people do think I’m Australian, even in Bristol.
I went back out to wait. Few more coachloads of wobbly fans went past. Advice, shrugs, smiles and belches came my way.
I waited. It grew dark. Some people told me I was on the wrong side of the road. A few more people told me I was in the right place. I looked over the road to the petrol station opposite and noticed there was no bridge. I shrugged and sat back down to ruminate. I think it must have been close to 11 when I went back into the shop to get some coffee.
As I was paying I conceded to the attendant that perhaps I was in the wrong spot.
“To be honest sir, I would agree. But that’s ok. I’m finishing in a moment and I can take you there.”
“To the other station, sir. Pick up your phone from where it’s charging and meet me outside. I shall open the tunnel.”

I use to say that being surprised or fazed was the import tax placed on your imagination by not having a conceptual model to meet an experience. I don’t know if I still say this. A lot of things get worn away when you travel by waiting. Time and the sun burnish your attention span and your skin, and eventually your capacity to be surprised is worn away. As I went to unplug my phone I remember having a bicameral response of ‘What the fuck is the tunnel/of course this man is about to open a subterranean escape route for my benefit.’
Amazingly the capacity for gratitude only seems to get stronger after years of reality showing its tendency to segue into a novel at odd hours of the night and day.

He came outside in a black jacket, rolling a cigarette. He placed it behind his ear and unlocked his bike. We walked together to a sort of non-descript grey booth that looked like a vent. They’re all over the place and you never notice them.

He unlocked the door on the front of it and looked at me quietly for a moment.
“Remember sir, to close the door when you reach the other side. You won’t be able to come back.” He mounted his bike and lit his cigarette.
I thanked him profusely, somewhat stunned by the combination of luck and decorum.
As he turned to leave I asked him his name. He looked at me over his shoulder, exhaling a plume of silver-blue smoke.
“My name is Frido, sir. Good luck, and remember to close the door.”
He rode off into the night and I walked down the steps into the tunnel, remembering to close the door.
I emerged in a petrol station, the mirror image of the first. I half expected to meet Frido’s twin but thankfully that didn’t happen. The other attendant was a short, blonde haired lady in her 40s, busy in the corner with some boxes at that moment. I was relieved. It was hard enough having all of the now-steaming football fans stopping off there for more beers on their way back from the game. Fuck, we were all spooked that night. I was still reeling from my initiation into the arcane brotherhood of petroleum corridors and they couldn’t work out how I was there when they left and there when they came back. I should have said I’m like the absinthe fairy except just what you see when you buy shit beer. Instead one of them came over to ask if I was a member of Antifa and sensing his anger I feigned ignorance. I slept in that station and got out the next morning with an ice cream man and his two year-old daughter. He confided in me that Belgians are not a trusting people and he dropped me off at Kortrijk.
This time I waited about 4 hours before instantly falling in love with another hitchhiker I met. Her and her cousin got me a lift out of there in the one spare seat of the car of a Dutchman who was driving his young son around the national parks of France to look for insects because ‘why not’.

Since that episode I’ve taken to calling a petrol station with its twin on the other side of the motorway a Frido.

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