Saturday, 8 February 2014

With sufficient faith and a good enough cause, you can ride the ghost train

Italo Calvino describes a scene in which Charlemagne, Emperor of the Franks, is reviewing his knights, one by one. Each raises his visor when the King stops in front of him, then gives his name and a few details of his command or his past victories.

Until Charlemagne draws up in front of one knight whose armour is immaculate, without a scratch on it, nor a trace of dirt. But the visor remains shut despite the King’s greeting.

‘You, Paladin!’ insists Charlemagne, ‘why do you not show your face to your king?’

Clear and strong the voice emerges from inside the helmet. ‘Because I don’t exist, sire.’

‘Now there’s a thing!’ exclaims the Emperor. ‘Now we even have a knight in our ranks who doesn’t exist! And how do you serve if you’re not there?’

‘By the force of willpower and by faith in our holy cause!’

Italo Calvino who wrote The Nonexistent Knight
A genial and humorous approach to the deepest aspects of life
Now my cause, unlike the one for which Charlemagne led his men in The Nonexistent Knight may not have been holy: with my wife, I was joining my brother and my sister-out-law for a week’s skiing in the French Alps.

Not, not really all that sacred, I can hear you exclaiming.

Maybe not. But it was the first time my brother and I had been on holiday together for four decades. I mean, we
’d visited each other and all that, but we hadn’t travelled together to some other place since the early seventies. Even if it falls short of holiness, that surely makes our endeavour a good cause at least. One that deserves a little faith.

As our two parties converged on our destination, it became clear that their train would be stopping at Chambéry where we were waiting for a connection. So why not take the same train for the last leg?

It seemed a good idea until an official at Chambéry station told us there was no such train. I rang my brother again.

‘We’re on it,’ he assured me. ‘It stops at Chambéry at 15:03.’

We tried another official. Same answer. In fact, this one took me over to look at the printed timetable. He was right, there was no train to our destination at 15:03 or indeed at any time before the one we were waiting for, an hour and a half away.

‘Maybe you can only get on the train if you have a reservation,’ Danielle suggested.

So we went into the ticket office to try and buy reservations.

‘My computer doesn’t even show the train,’ the friendly woman behind the counter told us.

It was time for an act of faith.

We went and stood on the platform where we guessed the train would have pulled in if it had existed. And, a little late but nonetheless bearing all the tangible signs of reality, in time a train turned up. A high-speed train, the famous French TGV, no less. Carriage doors opened and at one of them appeared my brother, with a welcoming grin and wave to invite us aboard. He introduced us to a ticket collector as though she were an old friend.

It seems so solid, a TGV in the snow by night
And yet it may be a ghost train
‘This is my brother and sister-in-law, the ones I told you about. They can join the train, can’t they?’

‘Only if they have the willpower and the faith to make it exist against the denials of all around them. If they have will of great strength and a cause sufficiently good, they can defy natural laws and railway timetables. Then they may certainly join us.’

Actually, I think I made that last bit up. But what’s certain is that we travelled the last stage of our journey with my brother and sister-out-law. And as a result we arrived a good hour earlier than expected.

Quite sufficient justification to raise a glass to the spirit of Italo Calvino that evening.


Anonymous said...

En France tout est possible!

Faith A. Colburn, Author said...

What a nice, serendipitous train. I'm assuming serendipity given that it wasn't even supposed to be there.