Portugalete train station. 927am Sunday. The platform is empty. I look up the track – nothing. I listen for a toot or a chug – nothing. The screen is a blur of red letters, but I don’t need it spelt out for me; I’ve misread the timetable and there’s no train coming. Fuck. I exit the train station and start running towards the taxi rank. The clouds are heavy and low and it’s humid. I picture what will happen if I don’t get to San Mames on time; frantic messaging, my friends annoyed faces, hasty rearrangements. I run faster. I feel sweat teasing through my skin. My bag bounces on my back.
The taxi gets me to San Mames bus station on time. My mistake costs €22.
I’m relieved to find that Paul and Bren are also hungover. Their faces are shiny with sweat and there’s a wiff of stale beer.
I throw my bag into the luggage compartment. We board the bus.
Then it gets worse…
Paul spends the journey with his head in his hands, saying very little, except ‘I wanna die.’ Then he announces that he needs a plastic bag. Bren says he has one. Perhaps Bren has forgotten that the moments before puking, with the cold sweats and the stomach’s rising bitter soup, are awful. He seems in no rush at all.
‘Now, which bag do you want? I have a BM bag and an Eroski back. Mind you the Eroski bag has my runners inside. They’re a little smelly so maybe we’ll go for the…oh wait, I have another bag here…’
Paul drops his bottle of water to the floor and pokes his hand through the gap in the seats. Bren gets the hint and provides the asking hand with a bag.
I try to ignore it. I stare straight ahead. I hear the retching and the plopping as the bag fills with the contents of Paul’s troubled stomach. I feel a new film of sweat forming on my skin. I feel my chest tighten. I take deep breaths and hoover in the sickly aroma from the plastic bag. I feel like I’m gonna have a panic attack or something. When we arrive in San Sebastian I hurry off the bus.
I stand against a cool wall and calm myself. The bus to Biarritz is in thirty minutes. I’m coming round. I pat down my pockets; passport, wallet, phone, raincoat. Bag?
‘Fuck. My bag!’
I run out to the bus bays but the bus has gone. On the way to Biarritz, I feel jolts of regret every time I think of something in my bag.
‘No! My new shorts.’
‘Nooo! My swimming togs.’
‘Noooo! My glasses.’
Then it gets a little better…
We stalk the streets of Biarritz like vampires, seeking out shade and wincing in the sun.
‘This is France for God sakes, there must be a good place to eat.’
‘Well, you say that, but I haven’t seen one McDonald’s yet.’
Eventually we settle for a burger bar near the beach.
‘Fuck me,’ Bren says with a mouth full of burger.
‘There are so many hot women.’
Our eyes follow another arse down the street.
Fed, we go for beers. Bren is extremely positive.
‘It’s great to get away’
‘I can’t wait for this festival in Bayonne.’
‘These beers are going down nicely.’
The beer and Bren’s positivity steer us out of the hangover towards good times.
Then it gets better again…
Bayonne. The streets are full. Machine gun carrying soldiers walk by in twos and threes. There are snipers silhouetted on the rooftop of the town hall.
We are appropriately attired with white t-shirts and red handkerchiefs. We swagger up to a stall and order a pitcher of beer. The bar man explains that they are about to close so we can have two pitchers of cider for the price of the plastic pitchers; €2. He becomes our new favourite person in the world. We tell him he’s wonderful, Bayonne is wonderful, France is wonderful, the French language is wonderful. He reacts by crinkling his forehead, pouting his lips, shrugging slightly and rocking his head, slightly. He is nonplussed.
Next, a firework display. Its awesomeness shoots energy to our bones. As soon as it finishes the DJ takes the party by the reins. Everyone dances. Everyone sings. The sniper watches over us.
We hold our red handkerchiefs aloft like defiant football fans.
And then it gets a bit mental…
The party veers away from the town hall towards the back streets. Bren hooks his arm around a passing girl, swings her in close and plants a kiss on her lips. She pulls back in shock, appraises him, then tilts her head in for more.
There’s a guy dancing on top of a barrel. He’s topless and his trousers are down around his ankles. A girl stands under him, arms aloft in praise of the fucks he is not giving. Suddenly, she jumps up, grabs his jocks and tugs. The jocks get stuck around his thighs so he works them down. The crowd respond with a mixture of bemused cheers, laughter and shock at the sight of his penis that hangs there like the trunk of a shy animal. The French girl next to me indicates with a thumb and index finger that she is not impressed with the size of his penis.
There are loads of hands supporting me. They take my weight. My feet leave the ground. I am hoisted up. My feet feel the top of a barrel. The hands leave me. I stand shakily, not quite trusting the barrel. It’s secure. Naked guy is on my left. I give him the thumbs up because I admire his balls. Bren is on my right. I give him the thumbs up because he is making it okay to be here with your trousers still on. Jackson 5 I want you back chimes out of the speakers. I howl approval. The street howls back.
Three buses and a metro join the dots between Bayonne and Portugalete. When I get to my room I close the door, drop my bag on the floor and sigh. How else was it going to end?