This was alarming. Because this was the stop. The sign said so – “Zeebrugge”.
Disembarking, I’d squeezed past the surly wide-nostrilled conductor who had greeted my attempts at ticket-time banter with such contempt. I regretted not knocking his bloody hat off and stepping on it, but the moment had passed.
Empty platform. Apart from a sign. (“Zeebrugge“).
Two disturbing things.
The first was the knowledge that I was the only person on a train of maybe 60 or 70 people who had disembarked, which seemed a little odd as Zeebrugge was supposedly the end of the line. The train was now clattering ahead into the distance, lending further weight to the theory that this wasn’t where the tracks stopped.
The second was a vast, gaping absence of ferry. You can’t hide ferries easily. Even David Copperfield would raise a sweat hiding a ferry. They command the horizon and your attention, absolutely without a doubt. But no. No ferry, or buildings or parked cars. Acres of nowt.
The explanation was obvious and horrific. With less than an hour to go before my ferry set off back to England, back to my second year of my Archaeology degree and an important seminar presentation I had to give the following afternoon, I was an unknown number of minutes short of my destination, and on foot.
I broke into an ungainly run. Without a rucksack I’d be able to make twice the speed and run for twice the time, but I was thoroughly rucksacked. C’est la vie, or as we say in English, bugger it.
The geographical prelude to the international port of Zeebrugge is a deeply awful sea of concrete – smashed, cracked, rotted, spectacularly unlovely, and wound through with rust-scabbed cables of iron looking like exposed bone. I ran through it all, that day. The weather wasn’t terrifically bad but neither was it the kind that that spurs you on, and soon I was filled with despair. I wondered what my then-girlfriend would say when I turned up on her doorstep back in Louvain-la-Neuve – which seemed a logical course of action – I could send an e-mail through her iMac to the University of York, explaining to my tutor that Yes, I had gone AWOL from my course in the interests of romantic digressions and Yes, I did have some explaining to do, but could they get someone else to read my seminar for me?
The scattered rubble turned into a hill. Hills are great, especially when you need to judge how far you have to run but can’t because there’s a bloody great hill in the way, leaving you no reliable way of rationing your dwindling energy. Should I go flat-out from this point, and risk jellylegging myself with half a mile to go, racked with cramps at the last so I’m incapable even of normal walking speed? Or was endurance jogging the key?
Zeebrugge efficiently handles over 30 million tonnes of cargo every year in a timely manner. I weighed around 70 kilos. It all seemed very unfair. There are around 11,000 employees at the terminal, any of which would have been able to put my mind at ease that I was heading the right direction. I didn’t see a single one. Nevertheless I kept going, fuelled with desperation and self-hatred (the perfect adrenal cocktail).
48 minutes. 48 dreadful minutes. I promised myself all sorts of things: that I would change, be a better person, the type of person who triple-checks every destination detail before he arrives, who truly knows where he is in the world, or failing that, the type of person who owns a GPS. I flamed away in a mental crucible of my own making. I was born anew. I fell over, twice.
And after 48 minutes I staggered into the embarkation gateway and clanged up the ramp to the ferry back to Hull, with approximately 15 minutes to spare.
“The Hull To Zeebrugge P & O Ferry: This is the easy, stress-free way of arriving in Belgium and France from the North of England…” (P & O website).
Disclaimer: the reverse may not necessarily apply.