Playing Stories — Chapter 33: Old Town Road

(Editorial note: this piece has been published early because… well, you’ll see on Tuesday. Publishing returns to Tuesday next week.)

Chapter 33: Old Town Road
from the EP “7” by Lil Nas X, featuring Billy Ray Cyrus
slipped under Emily’s door 23:23, 1 July 2019

I’m gonna take my horse to the old town road
I’m gonna ride till I can’t no more

“Hey, Mo. What are you doing here?”

“I’m off on holiday, Thomas. Europe is nice in September, and I needed a break. What are you doing here? I thought you were supposed to be at work or going to Charlie’s wedding?”

“Oh God, I thought of going, but I couldn’t take everybody just coming up to me and asking how I was doing, how was work, what interesting stuff about the Foreign Office I could tell them. Thought I’d get out of the country for a couple of days to, you know, shut out the noise. And there are worse places to stay than Paris when it comes to vacationing. Have you seen the Arc de Triomphe up close before?”

Crap, he was going to Paris as well? “Oh, I’m not really one for tourist destinations. I hate crowds, remember?”

He cocked his head, his brow furrowed — obviously he was smelling a rat. “Yeah, but even it’s the freaking Arc de Triomphe. You’re not gonna visit Paris and just skip all that, are you?”

“Oh, I’ve been to Paris so many times already.” Try your best to sound breezy, brush it off like it’s something else. “I was there with Laura a couple of years ago, she showed me around. I guess I don’t really need to see all that again… anyway, what about you? I thought you’d been to Paris, actually, Foreign Office and all that. Don’t you have like trips to go on?”

“That’s literally not what we do at the Office… we just stay at our desks and send emails between different people.” He looked out of the window next to me. A few passengers were walking towards us, and I saw the first signs of Calais, so we shrank into the next carriage as they filed in front of the door. “And even if we were… I’m at the Asian desk, so why would I be in Paris of all places?”

“Oh right, you minored Chinese back in Leeds… guess that comes up a lot at work?”

He blew his cheeks out. “Yeah… it’s getting messy down there. The Hong Kong problem’s causing a lot of shouting. And I had a couple of weeks off, so I thought I’d use them, just going out and seeing Europe at last… just a fortnight of peace and quiet, all by myself, you know?”

I looked at him. “Layla dumped you?”

His face raced through a car crash of emotions, and I saw his jaw tighten. “So you heard?” He swallowed hard and looked out into the plains of France. “I only told Charlie, is he that bad at keeping secrets nowadays?”

“Nah, I just figured. You two weren’t really talking with each other at Charlotte’s last time, and I thought, well how long are they gonna be like this?”

He sighed as we pulled into Frethun station. “Yeah, well, you know. Maybe it just wasn’t to be. She said that we were too alike, she needed some space, stuff like that.” He paused for a bit. “It’s kind getting revenge on her, I suppose. Anyway, what are you doing on this train? Are you going to visit Laura? Paris has to be very pretty this time of year… do you have tips for going around? Like places to see, people to meet… you’re staying in Paris for some time, I suppose?”

“Not really,” I said quickly. “I’m just changing trains at Paris, maybe a holdover for a couple of hours?”

“Oh really? Where to?”

“Geneva,” I blurted, hoping it didn’t sound like I’d just picked it out of a hat. “I’ve always wanted to go there… French-speaking, you know, but I might head up to Luzern and Zurich later for the Book Festival later on. Are you gonna head to Switzerland later?”

He shrugged. “I don’t really have a plan… I thought I might head to Amsterdam or Germany later, there’s all that Cold War stuff. Hey, since you know Laura, do you mind asking her if we can meet up? Haven’t seen her since uni… hope she’s doing well in Paris?”

The carriage door opened as I took out my phone. “I’d love to, but I’m not sure about whether she’s still there… do you mind if I check up with Laura first?”

He nodded, and I walked away from him as the passengers filed past. As soon as I thought he couldn’t see me, I melted into the crowd, and within seconds I was striding down the platform towards the end of the train. In my mind I could see him looking out the window and realizing that I was doing a runner, but I jogged down the platform without thinking too much about it, my phone still in my hand, and boarded the train again three carriages down. I wondered if he was going to go through the carriages, or even use his teleport skills to find me, but then again he was used to me making quick exits… wasn’t he?

Sure enough, after five minutes I still hadn’t seen his head poke round the doorway to my carriage. We were now flying past the stations of Calais and heading into the fields of Northern France: the Sun was still shining but I could see clouds behind us, chasing us down from the Channel. I decided not to interfere: these fields looked like they needed a bit of water, and who was I to deny them that?

I flashed back to the last time I’d seen Laura: it’d been raining on my last trip to Paris, too. I’d frozen the rains as we sat in the café in Saint-Germain, and everyone had found it so romantic that they kissed, right there and then, and then before I knew it Laura had leaned in and kissed me, too, but I wasn’t up for it, and since then things had always been so awkward between us. Patching up had been hard and mostly done over the phone or in Britain — both terrible places to do it, so Paris would have been another attempt to reconcile. I wondered how she was doing right now: maybe she had her own girlfriend?

Anyway, that wasn’t the point. I just wanted to go it alone. Yes I’d have moved on to some other place after a couple of days, just go around for a couple of weeks with my Eurail pass and see places. Like I really wanted to leave it all behind — screw everything and everybody in London, just give myself time to figure out what I really wanted, what I could even do with my life, figure out how to make things work for me again. Maybe I’d have found someone in Berlin, Lisbon, Prague, Geneva, wherever I was going. Maybe I wouldn’t, which was fine all the same. Perhaps I would go to Geneva: it was still vaguely French, and I doubted that even Thomas would want to go there. I could walk away from him, and never see his face again: we would become two dots that happened to collide in the chaos of life and then separate. It would simply be another small event in our lives, another footnote in my own odyssey. What’s wrong with that, really?

It wasn’t as if I hated Thomas. He was always nice to hang around with: breezy jokes, kindest person of our uni group, a bit clingy sometimes but that was just cause he was eager to please. (A bit too eager to please, yes, but still. Manageable.) I just didn’t feel like seeing him for now, didn’t feel like going through yet another exhausting conversation with somebody who was eager to poke his nose into my life, my day-to-day goings. You know how it is: when you want some peace and quiet, the last thing you need is to get some other face from the past trying to make conversation at every turn. He always wanted to talk. I couldn’t give him that — who the hell could?

Paris, the Gare du Nord, quarter to two. The train nestled in the platform, a white sleek bullet amidst a cathedral of antiquity. There was a lot more people here than usual: they’d cancelled the train after ours because of what happened back in Britain, so there were two loads of passengers on here. But then, through the crowd, I saw him walking towards the exit, his head craning up and down, left and right. He once said that he hated using his powers to get here and there, that he’d rather slide into the background unnoticed. Whatever the real reason was, we laughed whenever he said that — such a waste of his powers, he could have made millions by opening a service or something (as a friend of a friend of his had in fact done). But then again, who else among us already had a heavy salary in the bag when they graduated?

And yet it was weird, looking at him all alone there. It suddenly hit me: so this was what I looked like, too. He couldn’t remember it, bless him, but he’d once said that Layla always wanted to go to Paris, that he would ask me for tips whenever he went — with Layla, he’d added, as if the emphasis wasn’t strong enough. I saw him looking around, dazzled by a city of light and colour like every tourist had before him, yet I could see him restraining himself too, trying hard not to cry. Maybe that was what I looked like when I left the party unnoticed, when people said I looked “down”. I’d always thought I blended into a crowd well, that I looked like I belonged anywhere and everywhere. Only now did I wonder: was that always a good thing?

He walked up to a gendarme, but the policeman passed him without a second thought. Thomas scratched his head, pretending that he was meaning to do it all along. I chuckled — he did look pretty silly standing there, his head turning left and right like a London pigeon. And then I drew breath when he hailed an old man, stumping along in the street, stereotypical beret on his head. “Excuse me, sir?”

I strode up in a flash just as the French man was beginning to shout. “Je suis désolé, monsieur… come on, Thomas, I told you we were heading this way,” I said, dragging him towards the Gare de l’Est… “why do you even bother asking?”

I heard the old man stumping away, still shouting in French, but I didn’t look back. Thomas looked at me, the awe on his face almost embarrassing. “Don’t thank me,” I said. “Just consider this a lesson to always begin in French, okay?”

“Where are we going?”

“Oh, just somewhere where we can’t see that man… come on, or do you need me to give you a telling-off in French as well?”

He was still looking at me very weird. “Who the hell are you, Morgan?”

I look at him — just briefly — and smile. “Don’t push it.”

Well, that was quick, wasn’t it? Didn’t expect us to be here so soon, and I was already writing this before we left town yesterday. Think of it as bedtime reading… don’t write to me so soon, I need a break.

Also: you say I only know old songs. I question that… hope your room is comfy, I just killed a cockroach in mine. You’re GREAT at hostel arrangements, aren’t you? 😊


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