As the snows fell over the city on Tuesday morning there was only one madman trying to cycle to work through the blizzard. Everybody else was safe in their houses sipping hot chocolate from giant bowls and gazing contently at the winter wonderland scene outside. The only blemish on the icing sugar dusted Pont de L’universite was an Englishman cycling over it in a dirty orange jacket.
Yet despite the romance of it all, the city felt like the setting for a Ballard novel. Its ghostly interior devoid of vehicles except for the occasional petrolhead revving his car at 5000 rpm in deep snow and going nowhere. And all thanks to the notoriously useless city works department who must have deployed Legomen this year for all the snow clearing that was going on.
I finally got to the tower, prepared some coffee, and looked down at the circus below. It was hoots galore: fully grown men skidding all over the place like electrocuted scarecrows, dancing jigs that they had once learnt on exchange visits to Ireland in the eighties. Great entertainment and I was hoping that the student I was expecting in ten minutes wouldn’t turn up. Torturous conditions. Ice. Snow. Who would venture out into this?
I heard a knock on the door.
It was the building supervisor. A strange character who once caught me wandering up and down the emergency stairs of the 49 storey building where I work. I told him that I was checking out the escape options. My French was pretty poor back then and he wasn’t sure what I was talking about. Neuf/onze quickly clarified the situation and he told me not to worry. He had thought about it himself over the years. ‘It’s only Lyon,’ he reassured me in English.
He was a short stocky chap who spoke in short throaty bursts as though drowning in his own phlegm. Problems with le chauffage he started telling me. My mind went blank. I couldn’t remember what le chauffage meant. Was he talking about a hairdresser? His hair looked fine. He shook his head and pointed to the heating system. Ah, le chauffage! You should have said. One unknown word in a foreign lexicon can make the whole conversation pointless. We may as well have been hitting each other with sticks.
He explained that the heating was broken and wouldn’t be fixed until tomorrow. This was very good news I told him. The final nail in the coffin of today’s teaching schedule. The Lyonnais do not like the cold one bit. Especially a freezing cold classroom. With no coffee – I could make that bit up.
I sensed a free day. Like when you’re a child and school is closed for the day because of snow. You get to sledge and eat double portions of macaroni cheese for supper. A mug of sweet, milky tea. Bourbon biscuits. Days off that are better than the actual holidays. Better than birthdays. Better than Christmas.
So I shuddered when I heard the door open. A shuffle of feet towards my classroom. Damn. It couldn’t be the building supervisor again as I could see him in the square below taking pictures of the tower for some odd reason.
‘Oggers, lessons are cancelled for today. Le chauffage.’
It was my boss.
‘Take the day off, go sledging. Drink tea. Relax.’
‘Yes, I will. Thank you,’ I wanted to say. But I was already half way down the emergency stairs. It was the quickest way out. Careful planning always pays off.