Thursday, 23 April 2009

36 Steps to Vienna: 11 Fingers of Improvidence (3)


That night George and I slept between sheets.

Prophet Gefängnisvogel vanished as summarily as he had appeared and was seen no more. In the interests of a good story I would like to describe how, nearing Limburg an der Lahn, a town not far from Frankfurt, he had at last seen - no, 'descried' is better - he had at last descried in his rear mirror distant flashing lights of pursuing police cars, and how his cigar tip threatened to burst into flames as his Mercedes' speedometer needle felt its way up to 250 kph. I would like to embroider this further by invoking (again) The Wind in the Willows, where Toad, escaping from jail by train, is pursued by a locomotive bristling with policemen waving truncheons, detectives waving revolvers and, by a genial swerve of the imagination, ancient warders waving halberds. I would so like to able to tell how Prophet Gefängnisvogel, approaching the Limburg an der Lahn autobahn exit, reckoned he might just be able to give his pursuers the slip by putting on maximum revs., how the needle actually snapped off against the stop-pin on the 280 kph mark, how he slewed his Merc screeching down the slip road; how he braked hard leaving a tortured banshee scramble of tyre burns that were later acclaimed and preserved as a masterpiece of action art, urged us blinking through the flames of his cigar to jump for it, good luck, lads, break a leg, may the force be with you, see you in Blighty . . . but if any of this happened it has unaccountably slipped out of my mind. All that comes into it is a remembrance of being dropped in Limburg an der Lahn and the rhythmic clink and clank of water-bottles and saucepans suspended from our rucksacks as we trudged in search of somewhere to spend the night.

What passed for my planning of this expedition a month or two before was a lot of empty talk, the persiflage of a Luftmensch*, posing as an ur-Romantic, fired by the heroic energy of Beethoven, deeply in love - a necessary concomitant - with Adèle, although in fact she was just the latest in an unending line of flames, licit and illicit. But in a world where image was paramount I also wished to be thought of not merely as a latter-day Young Werther and martyr to refined artistic sensitivities, but as a man of physical prowess too, a sportsman. Scowling did the trick: scowling with a Beethovenian truculence at everyone except my closest associates conveniently bridged these two extremes. To this day there hangs in a lavatory at home a school athletics team photograph from that summer: the others gaze at the camera, bland, placid. Some grin. I scowl.

George prepared himself with his usual calm, efficient and unfussy deliberation and did practical things like bringing more than one change of clothes and joining the International Youth Hostels Association, something that in my careless improvidence I never bothered to do. According to him there was a Youth Hostel in Limburg, and in fact we found it not far from the autobahn exit. George produced his membership card and they accepted him readily, but no amount of pleading could persuade them to take me in too. George sighed deeply but said nothing, noble soul.

Eventually we passed an unpretentious hotel near the station. We looked at each other with an unspoken shall we? or shall we spend yet another night in a rhododendron thicket - on the floor in a mad evangelist's living room - under an oak tree in a park - in a pestiferous corner of Cologne Hauptbahnhof? Without actually saying anything we pushed clumsily though a revolving door, fully expecting to be propelled out through it again double quick on account of our tramp-like filth. The cheapest room was an attic with twin beds. And a bath. And a lavatory. Never did hotel manager admit guests more enthusiastic about staying in his premises. Never was hot water more gratefully sunk into, never was bog more thankfully sat on, never was sleep sweeter.

Prophet Gefängnisvogel's only involvement with deception, we decided, was in his absurd pantomime about being on the run. But the taste for speed, utterly compelling and addictive, never left us. Henceforward any moment not spent travelling, the faster the better, was wasted, a sort of purgatory of impatience and recrimination. We even begrudged the time it took next morning to find a bank in Limburg where I could change my Belgian francs into Deutschmarks.

* Many thanks to my friend Dave for this word, exactly expressing the sense of air-headed fainéantisme I wanted.

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