SEAT 16

by Ken Jones
Through
The Looking Glass
a high speed train
racing backwards

I didn't notice it at first, what with the anxious bustle of passengers stowing their bags, and flapping about with those long card tickets, crammed with information. No problem matching mine to its seat: "voiture 15 place 15". No one is struggling to claim seats 16 to 19. Which is because, to my amazement, they are not there. But where have they gone ? Here is our huge Train de Grande Vitesse creeping out of Lille Europe, a streamlined beauty bound for the Riviera at 200 mph -- and carrying four metaphysical seats. The occupants of seats 20 to 23, which are where 16 to 19 should be, seem quite unperturbed. They go on reading. Quite a spread: Figaro, Le Canard Enchaîné and Le Monde Diplomatique. As we speed across the plains of Picardy an uneasy sun shifts on the elegant white and beige upholstery of empty seat 20 - or is it really seat 16 ?
 
Nonchalantly I explore my own coach and the adjacent ones. Mine alone has four more seat numbers than any other, yet carries the same number of seats. Ah, the ticket collector ! He just shrugs: L'actualité, monsieur, souvent c'est bizarre. At this, Le Monde Diplomatique is lowered just enough to reveal a goatee beard and an ironic gaze: Soyez stoîque, mon brave ! he grins.
 
I begin to suspect some Gallic conspiracy. Yet at some time senior officials of the august Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer must have felt obliged to create this très grande perturbation in the whole booking and statistical system by making four seats vanish and adding four more to this one coach of this one train. What dreadful scandal or tragedy had overwhelmed seats 16 to 19 of coach 15 and, presumably, their occupants ?

Faster than thought
here and gone
an ancient church and steeple

I ease my way along to the bar. And the possibility of a sympathetic listener. D'un certain âge, she is chic, witty and game for a bit of drôllerie about Gallic logic. In my reckless French I joke about the roundabouts and bypass of the little town of Descartes, in Poitou, where you always end up where you started. Then stop mid-sentence. Her ticket ! Between two black gloved fingers: "voiture 15 place 16".

Three hundred kilometres an hour
losing the long shriek
of its electric horn

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