The railwayman I want as my creature

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The Independent Culture
AUTUMN, and England falling silently in a sort of misty stupor towards S Lucies Day. Now is the time of the last secular pilgrimages as the year gutters, and where could be nicer than Paris, the City of Light, avec ses midinettes, ses policemen, also those long loaves ("un beret, s'il vous plait") with slippery cheese up them. And only a short hop for an autumn weekend getaway break by Eurostar, direct from the Heart of London to the Heart ("coeur") of Paris

Eurostar is in many ways exciting but most exciting of all is that it seems to be run by people with a mysterious hidden agenda, something along the lines of the Illuminati or the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. For example, what appears to be a ticketing system is, quite clearly, a sort of extended secret experiment in the wilder arcana of numerology. You turn up, having swotted up the current special offers and discovered that the one you're after costs 90 quid return, and the girl says, "A hundred and eighty-two pounds, please, and you can't come back on Thursday unless you dance three times widdershins round Pere Lachaise while simultaneously gargling the Marseillaise in 14th-century Serbo-Croat and pay an extra 70 quid into the Eurostar 'Excess Sums Of Money We Have Managed To Chisel Out Of Our Customers' fund."

You haven't had this experience? Oh really. Perhaps it is my imagination that makes me believe I have bought about 40 per cent more Eurostar tickets than, for one reason or another, I have been actually permitted to use.

But I am not imagining Mr Mohamed Benaissa, Chef d'Escale at Paris Nord. I encountered him a few weeks ago now, and he has been preying upon my mind ever since, in his strange oatmeal-coloured Smart Casual clothes and his little label round his neck, telling the world that he was Mr Mohamed Benaissa, Chef d'Escale: a proud man, quite possibly feared and adored in equal proportion by his staff because there are organisations in which that sort of phenomenon could occur and perhaps Eurostar is one of them.

It began, as so many train journeys do, in a locked-solid Paris traffic jam. I arrived at Paris Nord with little time to spare; just enough (the electronic information board clearly and unequivocally announcing that the 14h43 train to London was open) to catch my breath and rid my senses of the redolence of hot, angry taxi-driver while the tremendous scrum of travellers cleared the interminable line at passport control. Then I went through. My ticket was checked; I duly inserted it into the automatic thing; the automatic thing failed to open. An Australian behind me inserted her thing, and the gate opened, and so we both went through, she to the train, me into the unwelcoming arms of a woman in a uniform. "You are too late!" she cried. "You went through the gate with someone else! Give me your ticket! Give me!"

There was 10 minutes until the train left. "It does not matter! Check in 20 minutes! You cannot go on the train!" Behind me, a woman was receiving similar treatment. We banded together, comrades in outrage, and I demanded that the supervisor be called. At this point I got my first glimpse of Mr Mohamed Benaissa's operating techniques. He kept us waiting, despite several calls for him, not only until the train eventually pulled out, but until boarding for the subsequent train had closed. When he finally did arrive, he refused to make eye contact, folded his arms, and announced, "You were late. You must go away again." "But the indicator board said the train was still open." "No it didn't." "Yes it did." "So we were very busy. We did not have time to change the display." "Busy?" "Busy with big tour-groups coming through." "So the display did say the train was open?" "Yes, but that does not matter. The train was not open. It says check-in 20 minutes before departure. I am responsible for 700 people! Security! Britain did not sign the Schengen Agreement! Me? I have never missed a train in my life! I have never missed an aeroplane! You? You were late. You must go away. You must buy new tickets."

The woman who had been turned back was getting fretful. "I have a child waiting for me," she said, "do you have no discretion in this?" but this appeal to humanitarian feeling did not affect his stern impacable resolve, although other passengers coming through were tutting and shaking their heads. "Yes! I have discretion!" he said. "So what can you do?" "I am going to do nothing!" he said. "You have missed the train. You must buy new tickets. I have the discretion to say yes or no, and I say NO!" He curled his lip, backing away slightly. "Now you are angry because you ask me to do something and you hope I will say yes. But I say NO!"

And Mr Mohamed Benaissa, Chef d'Escale, walked away, his bottom positively wiggling with self-esteem. As I walked off to buy a new ticket, other passengers were, in their turn, being turned back from the barrier. As I queued at the ticket office, the two men in front of me were buying extra tickets because they, too, had been turned away.

Eventually, the System, being suitably appeased with extra ticket-money, proved unable to come up with any reason to block my progress. The time- consuming security checks consisted, as usual, of a woman with a dog, who ignored me. And as the train pulled out of Paris, I decided that, were I in charge of Eurostar, I would not introduce a little human flexibility into the system. No; I would make it even more rigid and punitive. The sliding doors would have razor-sharp edges. Any small children left weeping on the platform would be thrown under the wheels of the departing train. There would be language tests on board, and anyone failing them would be flogged, as would anyone who failed to change their watch at the exact moment we passed the mid-point in the Channel Tunnel. And Mr Mohamed Benaissa would cease to be Chef d'Escale, and would become elevated as my creature, my avatar. We would be as one. The world would tremble at his little footsteps, and we would be very very happy.

From time to time, I would take him to London, on a little outing. We would, of course, fly. !

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