About 7:15 in the evening and, on the Bateaux-bus nearing the Eiffel Tower, my daughters’ eyes were glazing over. I could make out the signs. Their shoulders drooped under their backpacks. They yawned spectacularly. I nudged my husband; it was time to return to the hotel.
He nodded and we leapt nimbly onto the pier at the next stop. We jostled the thronging tourists towards the Champs de Mars train station. The 7:30 train would take us to the Chaville-Velizy station. That was where we had booked rooms at the Holiday Inn.
The train ride home took 20 minutes. Their eyes closed and mouths opened in deep sleep. O. looked on with amazement. How could they sleep on such a short ride? Maybe they were seriously jetlagged.
We trooped out at the station. We were the only ones who got off. The train whistled once and thundered on. There was no one else on the platform. Through the glass doors leading inside to the ticket-counter, we saw an empty space lit by bright sodium lights.
Though the window at the counter was open, no one was sitting there. Off the foyer, circular marble stairs curved upwards. My daughters had perked up after their nap. They speculated in whispers about where the staircase led. A door with ornate carvings in wood stood at the right. That was the exit.
We followed my husband outside. A taxi would take us to the hotel. But the cobbled street stood empty of cabs. In the parking spots, cars awaited their owners patiently. The light was fading slowly. In the middle of the street, a lamp post ringed with spikes of lavender and fat orange dahlias, blinked once and steadied.
Opposite, the boulangerie door pinged and Madame emerged with a long loaf under her arm. She checked the locks, peered into the darkened window of her shop and satisfied, turned smartly towards the waiting car.
The dark green Citroen revved and zoomed with flair past the lamp post. We stared at the receding taillights. The light in the sky had almost leached. My husband tried the door to the phone booth at the side. It opened with a vicious moan. He called out to my daughter. She was learning French in school, perhaps she could help with directions on how to use the phone.
But they returned defeated. My daughter had a sheepish look about her. She explained at length about conjugations and verbs not quite following rules. We couldn’t understand. All along the cobbled street, lights snapped on. A brisk wind sprung up and came at us past the narrow passages between the houses on either side of the street. My daughters rubbed their arms. They squatted on the pavement. I didn’t tell them not to. They rummaged in their backpacks, unearthing a packet of crisps and an apple. Never had the rooms at our hotel seemed more attractive than now.
We heard voices and turned around swiftly. A young couple strolled out. Shocking pink hair caught the street light, dangling earrings winked naughtily. I cleared my throat, but they were oblivious and looking deeply into each others’ eyes, stumbled up the street and disappeared. I sat down and sighed deeply.
The cafÃ© door opened across the street and a man with a checked apron came out. Humming, he began to stack the chairs on the pavement under the tree. Obviously he was going to close as well.
I jumped up and yanked open the door to the station. I looked round desperately. The big clock pointed to twenty minutes past eight.
My heart pounded. Spectacles flashed at me from behind the ticket window. A confused smile as I explained our predicament.
The man shook his head and held up his hand as he tried to stem my eloquence. Then I simply gave up and said beseechingly, “Taxi?”
“I call,” he pronounced gravely.
My family gathered around the window, hanging on his every word and action.
Within minutes, he was calmly speaking into the receiver and we all stood awash with gratefulness.
Outside, the sky was full of clouds. A moon peeped through. The cobbles gleamed like silver. It was a scene of incredible beauty. Soon the headlights of a taxi swept past the low wall bordering the station and the silent cafÃ©. We were going home at last.
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