Farewell, My Lovely

The hostel in Plymouth is called Staykation. A 20 minute walk from the train station, it’s located in the Stonehouse district on Union Street. The young man who checks me in has what, at the moment, is referred to as “learning difficulties.” (Give it a week and that will be considered offensive or otherwise inappropriate, and a new term will take its place.) He ends every sentence by addressing me as Madam, and though he asks me for ID he’s unable to use the office printer to make a copy of it, so I go around behind the desk to try and help. Fortunately for us both it’s simply a matter of the machine needing to be turned on. Then he doesn’t know how to process my payment by credit card, so I try to help him with that one but all we manage to do is charge my credit card 43 pence. I suggest we wait till his supervisor returns a bit later to complete the transaction and he quickly concurs. He shows me to my room upstairs which has two bunk beds and 4 lockers. I scatter some clothes on one of the bottom bunks to mark it as taken but I needn’t have bothered as it happens – I’m the only female guest so the room is all mine. There is a small kitchen right outside, stocked with the necessities but also some perks, like tea, paper towels, hand soap, even a bit of coffee. I’m surprised to see a tv on the wall and a washing machine in the corner. The bathroom has soap, a hand towel, even a bath mat and shampoo. After I finish paying downstairs I walk down the road to Aldi’s supermarket to pick up some food for dinner. The cashier greets me with ‘hiya’ then immediately lapses into terms of endearment: “there you are, my lovely,” “just sign here please, my sweet.” When I return to the hostel I pass the clerk on the stairs, who has overcome his need to “madam” me (I’m no longer a stranger?) and greets me in almost identical fashion.

Once or twice a man from the neighboring room pops in and out of the bathroom but otherwise I have the upstairs area to myself. The next day when I check out I ask the owner if I can leave my backpack in the lounge since my ferry doesn’t leave till 10pm, and he graciously agrees. During the day I walk around Hoe Park, the Barbican area (which according to the hostel owner contains the few remaining buildings in Plymouth that weren’t destroyed in the Blitz of WW2) and Sutton Harbor.

By late afternoon I’m flagging and sit in a park a short distance from the hostel before returning to collect my belongings. I’m making notes in my iPad when I hear a voice, and look up to see a young man, a boy really. He tells me he needs to get to the hospital to see his mother, but he is short 80p of the bus fare. Would I give him 80p? I know I’ve got a bit of change, as well as a 10 pound note which I’m hoping to save. (Travel tip: when leaving a country you may visit again, or whose currency is widespread like the Euro, try to hang on to the equivalent of at least ten dollars for next time, for bus fare, a cup of coffee, whatever in the event an ATM isn’t readily available at the border and you can’t use a credit card.) I silently debate whether to set my iPad down to get out my wallet and fish around for coins. I seriously doubt his story, and wonder what he is really planning to do with the money. I mean, what can you buy with 80p? But I don’t have the heart to deny him such a small request, so I rest my iPad on the bench beside me and dig in my pocket for my wallet. He asks me where I’m from while I’m doing this. I tell him and he says the Americans he has met have all been great people. He hopes to visit some day. I say I’m glad to hear it, hand him a pound coin and tell him he is a good son. He smiles and thanks me, then to my surprise leans in and kisses my cheek. As he does so I think instantly about my phone in my pocket and wonder how adept at sleight of hand he’d have to be to lift it; my iPad next to me would be an easy swipe. If he took either of them, would I run after him? I picture myself, a 53 year old woman, in pursuit of a fit teenage boy, tackling him from behind and wrestling my electronic device from his hands. He retreats, smiles and walks away, and even as I pat my pocket, feeling my phone, even as I glance down to reassure myself my iPad is still there, I am ashamed of myself. Although we live in a world where my fears weren’t unrealistic, they are not justified. The vast majority of people are mostly good, and if we stop believing this, we stop doing the little things, never mind the big ones, that validate our connection to others, our commonality. It’s not just their humanity at stake when they need help thus reach out and risk rejection, it’s our own.

Back at the hostel I change into my motorcycle gear so I’ll have less to carry on my back. The owner asks me where I’m going and when I say Brittany, tells me he bought a cottage there; he’s going to live there when he retires, in a year and a half. “If I still can by then,” he growls. “We’ll see what this lot comes up with,” referring to Theresa May and the as yet unsettled terms of Brexit. As I walk out to the street he points to the building directly across from the hostel. It’s a magnificent old hotel and theatre, several stories high with turrets and statues and tiled scenes of the Spanish Armada across the front. It was damaged in a fire years ago and the owner, who subsequently went to prison on drug charges, is out now and wants to demolish it and build cheap (as in shoddy) housing. “He can’t though,” he says, “because it’s historical, see?”

As a pedestrian boarding the ferry, at least from Plymouth to Roscoff, I am subjected to the same sort of security measures as if I were in an airport. I have to remove my coat, my bags go through an X-ray machine, and I have to walk through a metal detector (if that’s what that is). Whereas all the times I was on the bike with John, wearing the same clothes, carrying the same baggage, we never once were put through any screening. We simply rolled right on to the ferry after showing our ticket and passports. It makes no sense, and serves to reinforce the notion that so-called security measures are bullshit – random, inconsistent and meant to convey the idea that they make us safer without doing anything of the kind. If they can instill us with fear that our lives are in constant danger and we need to be guarded and protected at all times, we will get used to these practices which invade our privacy and violate our civil liberties. Before long, we’ll forget they ever existed.

After we debark at 8 the next morning, I look around for someone to ask about the bus. The travel websites I visited all claimed you have to have a paper ticket in order to catch the bus to Morlaix, and the only place you can get one is at an official French train station, making it impossible for someone just off the boat from England. Luckily, when the bus shows up at 8:55, the driver accepts cash.

The man behind me, a young Frenchman, only has 4 euros on him, as well as a few pounds. He taps my arm as I start to move away. We had chatted briefly at the bus stop about the possibility of buying a ticket on the bus as neither of us had purchased one in advance. “Can you help me?” he asks. I give him €3, enough to cover what he’s short then go and find a seat. When he passes me he stops, and holds out a ten pound note. “Here,” he says. “You can use it on your next trip to England.” I could, yes, but it’s too much. I tell him so, and he pulls a handful of change from his pocket. “Take it,” he says, trying to empty his hand into mine. I tell him I’ll take two pounds as I pick through the coins. My stomach growls loudly as the bus pulls away. I sit back, close my eyes, and wonder how soon I’ll be able to get my hands on something from a patisserie.

Speaking of lovely, I recommend the book The Seas by Samantha Hunt. Her prose is concise, poetic, insightful, daring and fresh.

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