||[Jan. 11th, 2009|11:47 pm]
I took the ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe just before Christmas to spend some time with an old friend. I can’t really express how bleak the port of Newhaven is. But it’s only a few minutes from Brighton, and the voyage means four uninterrupted hours of reading and staring at the sea, which is obviously worth a little sacrifice.
I came back late on a Sunday night. Foot passengers get off the boat first, and then on to a little minibus to be driven a few hundred yards to the terminal building. So I’m sitting on this minibus waiting for it to fill up, and almost the final passenger to climb in is a man hauling an absolutely enormous wheeled case. It’s the biggest size they make – the sort of size you see in a shop window that makes you stop and reflect on what kind of disorganised lush could ever need luggage that big. This unremarkable-looking, polite man in his late forties is having extreme difficulty. He finds this case so hard to move that it takes all his strength to pull it over the tiny ridges running across the floor of the bus. It blocks the aisle completely. All the time, he’s sweating alarmingly and gasping for breath as if he’s about to pass out. As soon as we pull up at the other end, there’s a big faff because two huffy women want to get past him instantly to run for a train that they have absolutely no chance of catching. He does his best to let them through. He sounds Italian.
By the time we disembark and start queueing to show our passports, he's right in front of me, still panting over his four-foot-high case. We smile at each other a bit, as you do, and I half think about commenting on the weight of his luggage or the attitude of the women on the bus, but I don’t. Of course we’re all standing around for ages, and I look away and back a few times, and dimly realise that he’s fiddling with the case. He seems to have undone the zips around the main opening a little. And then my attention wanders as the queue shifts, and I’m getting my passport out, and the next time I look back there’s a woman standing next to this man, maybe teenage or in her early twenties, wearing a sort of white jumpsuit. They’re mumbling to each other quite amiably, and I’m thinking, how strange, I didn’t see her before. Perhaps I even thought, ha ha, wouldn’t it be amazing if she’d just climbed out of the case – but that would obviously be crazy.
Eventually these two are at the head of the queue, and while he shows his papers the girl nonchalantly walks around the corner, out of sight of the rest of us, towards the exit door leading to the wasteland of Newhaven town. The customs arrangements always seem madly laid-back here – I’ve never seen anyone’s luggage checked – but the man behind the desk spots her immediately and motions for someone to stop her. Meanwhile the case man is waved through without a hitch, and once I’ve shown my passport and headed for the exit, I see him as I walk past. He has stopped to ask the girl who she is and where she came from in a sweet, innocent voice, as a customs officer keeps a grip on her forearm.
And then, as I’m walking on towards the car park, I realise that he's right behind me. I can’t shake the feeling that there’s something peculiar about this, so I look round to see that he’s now carrying this immensely heavy wheeled suitcase by its little fabric handle, lifting it completely clear of the ground as he goes, matching my pace and then overtaking me and loping off into the night in that Pythonesque way people do, when they’re just barely preventing their maximum-speed walk from shifting into an attention-grabbing, headlong run.
Someone had seen the girl emerging from his suitcase and told the security staff, and they frog-marched him back as I was starting up my car. It’s pretty hard to disappear fast in Newhaven if you don’t have a car.
Every time I tell someone all this I can see them silently marvelling at how stupid I was not to pick up on what was going on. Apparently, if you don’t want to believe that a person has been clumsily smuggled under duress from Dieppe to Newhaven in a wheeled suitcase, and you don’t actually see the moment when they climb out of it, three feet from where you stand, you can convince yourself that it didn’t really happen at all. But why would I want to do that, even unconsciously? And why did she get out of the case before they’d cleared the passport desk, unless she was even keener to escape from the man who was wheeling her than to get into England undetected?