Monday, 15 June 2009

36 Steps to Vienna: 13 Slugs, Snails and Irish Girls (2)



Having left our bodily imprints in the furrows between rows of turnips, we picked our way as the sun was rising through the pink-flowered wood and rejoined the slip road. We glanced up and down: there seemed to be no fewer hitch-hikers than the evening before. Had they been there all night, vainly waving thumbs at headlights?

Where we emerged from the wood there two lumpish girls of about our age, tousled and grimy, wearing baggy khaki shorts and what looked like army boots with bobby-socks that would have been white a few days before. That I can only remember what encased their lower halves tells its own story. One had an Irish tricolour on her rucksack. We tried them in English, but they were so uncommunicative that it was hardly worth the effort of speaking to them in any language:

- Hi. Where are you heading for?
- Istanbul.
- How long have you been here?
- Since Sunday.
- What, day and night?
- Aye. Bugger off, the pair of you. The queue starts up there.

She may have said 'the pair of yez', but I don't remember. Nor can I remember any witty, acerb, telling response to this. As the long day passed, and as by midday we'd only moved two places down the queue, the desperation of the Karlsruhe trap began to bite with all its savage force. The Irish girls had probably been afraid that their chances of a lift, already slender, would be reduced even further if they were apparently accompanied by two boys. Nobody ever stopped for groups of four. Besides, girls always had an advantage, although those girls (still there, about a dozen places down) hadn't done much to promote their femininity. It wouldn't have been easy for them, of course, to present a roadside vision of loveliness and more if they were sleeping rough like us.

The traffic rolled past, mostly accelerating hard, largely ignoring the roadside ripple of waving thumbs. The queue system didn't really work. There might have been a slight advantage in being first in the queue, but the few drivers who stopped did so quite arbitrarily. Down at the start of the slip road a car deposited a kilted hitch-hiker, who swung his rucksack on to his back, strode across the road and waved his thumb at the first car to pass, which stopped for him. A bolt of monstrous anger, like an electric shock, flashed up the queue. Fists were waved, one- or two-fingered gestures made, imprecations shouted in many languages, and I daresay lifelong anti-Scots prejudices formed.

The afternoon passed, under a sweltering August sun. There was nothing there, just a sun-bleached grass verge, litter-strewn, a pervading hopelessness mingled with petrol and diesel fumes, dust and hot tarmac. No mirages of little roadside cafés with bright awnings and ice-cold beer shimmered in the distance. The romance of this very road and no other, of this very point outside Karlsruhe being the gateway to the fabled east, to Vienna, to Budapest, to Istanbul and beyond to Persian lands afar, to Shangri-La and distant Cathay soon vanished, chased headlong by thirst and dirt, noisome fumes and the sensed hostility of fellow hitch-hikers. Newcomers appeared and took sullen station beyond us. Some said 'Servus!' as they trudged past, a greeting I hadn't known before. Each approaching vehicle spawned an embryo of hope, aborted despair as it sped past. Our water was done, in part squandered trying to rinse slug-slime off my brow in the night. We exchanged some plums with some French neighbours for a half-fill of what they called George's gourd, his water bottle.

George and I spoke less and less. We had now been in this desolate spot for 24 hours. Gefängnisvogel was a false prophet, his religion of transcendental motation a snare for the simple-minded.

Evil, frustration-fuelled thoughts began to swirl up from the depths. Should we pack up and go home? Would I be better off on my own?

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