As the volcano vomited its detritus of ash across the European continent, a million plans were disrupted. Families were divided, businesses interrupted; chaos took hold. But under the cloud, small stories like this one played out, with consequences not of delayed travel, or money lost, but of something else, indeterminate.
As the ash spread, it had become ever clearer that England would be cloud-bound for days. To get home stateside, to waiting family, I headed south, first by train, then by overnight ferry from a jammed Portsmouth, passing Britain's fleet at anchor, grey and ghostly in the darkness. I reached Paris by mid morning by train but there hit the buffers. The Gare d'Austerlitz was a cacophony of frustration. Vast milling crowds; angry staff; all trains south booked for days.
I returned to my kind friends' apartment and paced around wondering what to do. Madrid was the only clear airport in Europe and the cloud threatened even there. Time was against me but I had no means to travel, all buses like all websites hopelessly clogged. I wandered the streets of Paris, asking in hotels and the few open shops (it was Sunday). Eventually, I found a car at a nearby hotel. Bogdan from Zagreb was the driver, laconic and, I hoped, tireless; we had a very long road ahead. Together, we headed back to the station to recruit others to share the cost.
I worked the train line, trying not to sound like a hustler, "Three places to Madrid, 300 euros plus gas!". People looked at me warily, was this a con? Could they trust me? But in minutes, desperation overcame all suspicion of this scruffy man, trying to look harmless. One by one people approached me: a Mozambican trying to get to Oporto, an Israeli to Haifa, a Pole to her home in Spain and me, the Brit needing to get back to my sick wife and children in New York City.
The journey in prospect was awful: five large adults in a small saloon car, twelve hours non-stop at high speed, in the pitch of night. But we had to get to Madrid by the next morning, where we had planes booked, and it was already evening in Paris. Urgency propelled us.
And this journey was much as other long road journeys. Our conversation was mostly inconsequential; shared family stories, travel histories, children, plans, an occasional laboured cross-cultural joke, the volcano and its machinations - of course. An endless miasmic spool of road and headlights, monotonous and hypnotic. Bogdan sat at the wheel, occasionally flicking his GPS, techno music ticking almost inaudibly but, we hoped, keeping him awake. Outside, the glories of France hidden behind black and lights.
At service stations, we shared ice cream bars and water. Too tired to stand, I stretched my legs by simply sticking them out of the door. Crammed in that little car, only now and then able to sleep, we had become a little community of purpose. Our bodies were packed tightly together, an intimacy enforced but oddly not unwelcome.
Still deep in the night, we reached Spain at last. Now we were drunk with exhaustion. Bogdan gunned the little car around the foothills of the Pyrenees, revving its straining engine. We were thrown against each other as he swerved fast around the tight bends. We grabbed handles to stop ourselves from crushing one another.
Somehow, we made it. As dawn broke, we approached the airport. There, more crowds, but this time palpably broadcasting relief not the desperation of Paris and Portsmouth. Sleeping bodes littered the concourses. The Israeli and I entered the terminal to find cash to pay the doughty and miraculously alert Bogdan. We took a while and when we returned to the little car, the others had left, no doubt hastening to their own destinations.
Freed of the straining uncertainty of the last few days and the claustrophobia of the too-small car, we were glad to have arrived. But I was sad at our group's parting. I said goodbye to the Israeli and Bogdan, knowing that we would never see each other again. Forged by common necessity, a bond had formed among us for that brief while, racing the cloud south across darkened France. Our little cluster of diverse humanity, against the volcano.