“English or French? Français ou anglais ?”
I made my declaration: “British! Britannique !” My declaration was not unlike Florence Nightingale accosting a Cossack in the Crimea, or wherever she used to hang out on Saturday nights. The pose which went with it, I felt, was appropriate. That is, as much as someone can pose while sitting on a train. I felt up to the challenge.
The customs official gave me the uninterested air of a bureaucrat.
“Language. Do you prefer English or French?”
A bit of context might be necessary for those of you unfamiliar with the Vasa archive. Through circumstances detailed in my Park Avenue or Bust!, which The New York Times Book Review glowingly called “a book about New York”, I had to leave the United States in a bit of a hurry. I will spare you the specifics about singing nieces, passive-aggressive uncles, and nationalist aunts built like the Eiffel Tower.
The executive summary is this: I was crossing into Canada on an Amtrack train with Ypres (my lady’s lady/vice-president social affairs), Cousin Andrew (a hipster architect who happens to be the son of my Uncle George), and Michael Beaconsfield-Outremont. Beaconsfield-Outremont’s current claim to fame was that of having been run over on Park Avenue while eating an ice cream in my Lexington Redcoat red summer short shorts. They were not my shorts personally, but I had worn the exact same pair in Hyde Park, and the unanimous opinion was that I wore them best.
Our happy band was now at border control. The only thing preventing me from enjoying maple syrup and public healthcare à la NHS, as it were, was a customs official professing bilingualism.
Before I could initiate my peroration, Ypres was at the ready. Perhaps it was the Leonard Cohen ballads she was listening to on the journey to the border to drown out Beaconsfield-Outremont’s moans of pain. Or perhaps it was her general penchant for all things bureaucratic (she once came in first in a Kafka contest in Prague), but she dealt with the customs official brilliantly. She was ready.
That is Ypres in a nutshell – not literally, of course. Ypres is a tough nut to crack, and although her general allure sometimes suggests the maritime and shell-like, she does not make it a habit of hanging out with nuts or their shells.
To recap the scene, Ypres had picked the en français option with a nondescript customs official stage-right. Beaconsfield-Outremont was busy mumbling something about needing to go to the hospital in somewhere called Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu. Cousin Andrew was giving him furtive glances from over the cover of his copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray, which he likes to re-read on train journeys. I, as always, was centre stage looking fabulous in my Dior travel ensemble.
I did not quite catch all that Ypres was saying in her best international French to the official. At some point she pointed to Beaconsfield-Outremont who was attempting a D-flat major that could have filled the symphony hall at Place des arts, and motioned towards a slightly startled Cousin Andrew. The official nodded. I was at the ready to deliver my lines, when Ypres gently grabbed me by the right arm and we headed for the train’s “restroom”: what an ambitious real-estate agent would refer to as a “compact pre-war water closet in need of love and care”.
I was a tad perplexed. “What ho, Ypres? I am a tad perplexed.”
“It appears you are sans passport,” came Ypres’s cool, yet serious, reply. The sort of tone more appropriate to a salmon making its way up the river.
I patted myself down. The realisation struck.
“You’re right, Ypres! In the rush to leave New York, I must have left it at the Park Avenue flat.” I paused, to little dramatic effect. You cannot rattle Ypres. She is unrattleable, as it were. “Surely this must happen every once in a while. There must be a procedure for VIP travellers to establish identification. Was that what you were discussing with the customs official? Do they need an autograph to establish my identity?”
That was not the reply I was expecting. Ypres continued.
“I did not mention that you did not have your passport to the official. As you remember, you also have a large sum in cash: the advance from Madame LaPeine de Mort’s payment to your account at Coutts.”
Madame LaPeine de Mort was the aunt (not mine) built like the Eiffel Tower on a protein regiment.
“Yes, Ypres, but I do not see what this has to do with not informing the…”
I was cut off. “The sum is over the $10,000 limit permitted to cross the border. I believe that without your passport, and without a conventional explanation as to why you have such a sum in cash…”
“Ypres, as you no doubt remember, you are the one who used blackmail to get…”
“The negotiated settlement between Madame LaPeine de Mort and yourselves might not stand up to conventional scrutiny by officialdom.”
This, I gathered, was Ypres round about way of saying we were in the soup.
“So what do you propose, Ypres?”
“I have told the customs officer that Mr. Beaconsfield-Outremont requires medical attention and that your cousin, Mr. Vasa, was his medical attendant.”
“Well, I suppose with his jacket and those tortoise reading glasses he insists on wearing for style, Cousin Andrew fits the part of a medically inclined traveller.”
“Indeed. It provided an opportune distraction and has bought us a bit of time.”
I scratched my freshly exfoliated chin. “I assume you have a plan?” You see the thing with Ypres is that she could plan the siege of Quebec with the content of a picnic basket in an afternoon, and still have time to take in the sights and partake in a nap.
In lieu of a verbal answer, she pulled a latch which unlocked a trap leading to the tracks under the train.
“There are bushes about seven yards away from the train. We can easily crawl there from the tracks, and cross the border on foot. It is about a ninety-minute walk to Cantic where we can board a freight train into Montreal. The 18h36 to be precise. It should get us into the city by midnight.”
Ypres then proceeded to descend through the trap as I was picking my jaw from off the floor.
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